Gov. Whitmer announces expanded stadium capacity, more HS sports testing as cases spike

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held a press conference Friday morning to announce more people will be allowed to attend outdoor sporting events, including the Detroit Tigers' Opening Day.

The governor spoke just one day after attending the unveiling of the new Ford Field vaccine clinic that will begin administering patients next week.

During Friday's press briefing, the governor announced an update to the state's epidemic order on masks and gathering limits, which will allow more than 8,000 fans to attend the Tigers' opening day game. Previously, the Tigers would have been limited to just 1,000 fans in the more than 42,000 seat stadium. The order increases capacity to 20% of the stadium's original seating capacity.

But that's not all that Whitmer announced. Michigan high school student-athletes will also be tested for COVID-19 before every practice and game as the state has seen an increase in rates over the past few weeks.

There are twin trends in Michigan's public health sphere and depending on how fast they move up or down will determine what kind of spring residents are going to have. 

More than 25% of the state has gotten at least one vaccine shot, including 60% of elderly residents. The state is pretty confident about its prospects of reopening the state by the Fourth of July. It's loosened rules on almost every industry and plans to open vaccine eligibility up to everyone by early April.

But this good news is underscored by a new sense of urgency gripping the state - its COVID-19 infections are rising fast. The state's epidemiologist likened the current increase in cases to that of October's surge.

A third surge

Michigan's already been through two surges with COVID-19. The first one required a near-lockdown of all services because so little was known about how to mitigate exposure. The second surge also required drastic measures, but with more safety precautions involved.

Now, Michigan is at the precipice of another spike in cases, an indicator of just how short a state's honeymoon for progress can be against COVID-19. At least 10 other states are seeing similar trends, although most aren't in the Midwest.

Sarah Lyon-Callo, the director of the MDHHS Bureau of Epidemiology and state epidemiologist, said an increase in outbreaks associated with high schools and the spread of the newly contagious B.1.1.7 variant are partly to blame. Other outbreaks are being reported in nursing homes and manufacturing centers.

RELATED: Michigan COVID-19 numbers: Rates similar to October as cases continue to climb

The positive test rate has climbed to 5.1% while the cases per million have doubled. 

Deaths are still declining, but as health experts understand - that's a lagging indicator and may rise in the coming weeks. A 12% increase in hospital bed usage dedicated to COVID-19 patients and a 45% increase from the February low may be as good a sign as any that they will. 

Ramping up vaccinations

As Whitmer put it at Ford Field on Thursday, "the vaccine train has left the station." And that's true. The rate of inoculation has steadily increased and an additional 335,000 doses are about to arrive in the next eight weeks when FEMA's operations at the Detroit Lions' home kick off next Wednesday.

Whitmer has echoed what the president said about returning to a sense of normalcy by mid-summer. While the upper peninsula is keeping pace with coverage, counties in the lower peninsula's more populated regions are seeing slower progress.

In Detroit, the vaccine coverage is 15% according to state data - which is 11% less than the state. The tri-county region outside of Detroit is having an easier time getting shots into arms and health officials hope the federal government's first mass vaccine center boosts that up even more.

RELATED: "The vaccine train has left the station"; vaccinations at Ford Field begin next week

Importantly, teachers and school staff are among those getting protected first. So are the state's most vulnerable elderly patients. 

Racing the virus

But while the state has eyes set on what the summer is going to be, it has a more urgent concern: can the rate of vaccinations keep pace with the spiking spread of the virus it's supposed to protect against?

Fortunately, the new variant from the UK, while more contagious, isn't more deadly and both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been shown to be effective against it. 

Part of Michigan's spike is due to a surge in UK variant cases in the MDOC setting. 

An analysis of Michigan's latest surge by The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project says the presence of these new variables means health officials just don't know what is in store for the state.

The state has done well in inoculating the elderly but has faltered in protecting Black people. The city of Detroit has covered 20% fewer elderly residents. If last spring gave any indication of what these inequities have in store, it could get worse before it gets better.