Michigan's 4th Covid surge looks more like a 'marathon' Beaumont chief says; "It could be a 4-5 month affair"

Michigan is seeing its fourth surge of COVID-19 cases, but this one is taking on a different shape than the state's previous pandemic peaks. 

Where the surges in 2020 and early 2021 saw rapid increases in cases and then climbs in hospitalizations, followed by rapid declines in cases and hospitalizations. But this increase is shaping up to be more of a "marathon," Beaumont's Chief Medical officer Dr. Nicholas Gilpin said Thursday.

"For the last couple months, starting in September, we were experiencing a slow burn with a shallow slope of increases in Covid patients in hospitals," he said. "In the last week, we've seen a sharp increase to where we currently are."

Where we are is at a six-month high among hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 in Michigan. Cases have climbed 30% in the last week following a gradual months-long increase in cases. The infection rate is 11.5% in the tri-county area.

Gilpin says that Beaumont has 397 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus, a number that could rise following the rapid spike in new cases. The trajectory is leaving him "very concerned."

"We are in a period of substantial to high community transmission," he said.

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A few factors are contributing to the climb - chief among those are the rate of unvaccinated people in the state. Following the addition of newly eligible kids ages 5-11, Michigan's vaccination rate sits at 54.4%, the state's vaccine dashboard shows.

Environmental factors like humidity and temperature are also making it more conducive for the virus to spread, just as residents congregate indoors ahead of the fall and winter months.

Gilpin also believes the growing consensus that the state of COVID-19 is getting better, while false, is enabling more relaxed attitudes about how people evaluate their risk when they socialize or congregate in public.

But that behavior change is happening at the exact wrong time, the Beaumont chief says, as community transmission climbs into double digits. 

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Gilpin doesn't see any reason the surge is going to end either, since that would require a change in epidemic rules or behaviors among residents. "This fourth surge could be a 4-5 month affair."

Among the most common places that infection is occurring is in schools. "It's not even close," Gilpin says when discussing where outbreaks are being reported around the state. Kids who have yet to get vaccinated are catching the virus in school and bringing it home, where they infect the rest of their families.

The makeup of hospitalized patients, at least in Beaumont, is about 65-70% unvaccinated. For the 30% that are vaccinated and still hospitalized, "there's usually an explanation" for why they are admitted despite getting inoculated.

"Typically the person is chronically ill so the vaccine may not be as effective, or the people who got vaccinated early on and may be experiencing waning immunity," he said. "Which is why the FDA and CDC recommended some groups get a booster dose."