GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - "I wrote the first COVID-19 death certificate at Spectrum health," said Dr. Shelley Schmidt, a Pulmonary Disease expert. "I have never taken care of a patient dying from the vaccine."
Making a prudent urge to Michigan residents to get protected, Schmidt was joined by doctors, health officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in making the latest plea that residents not yet vaccinated to get the shot.
Already in the middle of a massive surge in infections and hospitalizations, Michigan may be in for another month of high case rates and deaths linked to the COVID-19 as the omicron variant spreads through the state as the holidays kick into gear.
"This virus is spreading faster than anyone anticipated," Whitmer said of the omicron variant. "Hospitals are still inundated and those are largely unvaccinated patients. That's why we want to acknowledge we're in for another tough four-to-six weeks is what experts are projecting."
As holiday travel ramps up, concerns have morphed into alarms for many hospital groups and doctors as Michigan manages some of its worst hospitalization numbers of the pandemic. The 7-day case rate has started falling back down, but patient loads remain near capacity at many hospitals.
A health advisory has been in effect recommending masks for everyone regardless of vaccination status in busy public settings and in regions with high infection rates. Whitmer did say that since the state has more tools at its disposal and more knowledge about fighting severe symptoms, mandatory rules about masks, business shutdowns, or indoor capacity limits would not be announced.
Instead, MDHHS has set a goal of administering COVID-19 booster shots to 1 million residents and the 95% of eligible nursing home residents by the end of January 2022.
"A 15-minute appointment to get your booster can help keep you out of the hospital and save your life," said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel.
Michigan had been managing a more gradual uptick in cases since July 2021 before they spiked in November. What followed was more than 4,500 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and another 1,000 in the ICU.
In October, unvaccinated people had 4.3 times the risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and 13.2 times the risk of dying from COVID-19 than people who were fully vaccinated. According to Hertel, from January 15 to Dec. 3 unvaccinated people made up:
- 85% COVID-19 cases
- 88% of COVID-19 hospitalizations
- 85% of COVID-19 deaths
Michigan's infection rate remains high at 16.2% of COVID-19 tests and cases area being reported at 477 per million. The 30-39 year old age group experienced the highest case rate while all age groups below 50 saw increases in hospital admissions.
Over a 7-day period from Dec. 3-9, some 756 people died.
The current wave is being felt around the U.S., despite the presence of available vaccines. While recent studies haven't pinned down if the omicron variant offers a more dangerous health outcome compared to the delta strain, it is far more infectious. It's already the most dominant strain in the U.S.
Lab tests have shown that while two doses from either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines may not be enough to prevent infection against the variant, a booster shot received six months after completing the initial 2-dose series produces enough virus-fighting antibodies capable of tackling omicron.
Antibody levels naturally drop over time, and a booster revved them back up again, by 25 times for Pfizer’s extra shot and 37 times for Moderna’s. No one knows exactly what level is high enough — or how long it will be before antibody levels begin dropping again.
Natural immunity from a previous infection doesn't appear to offer much protection against omicron, but it may reduce the chances of a severe illness.
But it's the pace at which the variant can move that has made tracking exposure nearly impossible for health officials. The rate has generated concern that as families join each other for Christmas, Michigan's high case rates could spike even further than the peak reported earlier in December.
The number of people in the hospital with the virus remains near all-time highs.
Because the vast majority of those admitted have not gotten the vaccine, Whitmer, Hertel, Schmidt, and other doctors implored those who hadn't yet gotten protected - about 3.6 million Michigan residents - to schedule an appointment.
"We all see the stories playing out of people not getting vaccinated, While they may get breathing treatments to help, it's too late at that point," Whitmer said. "If you're unvaccinated, now is a great time."
According to the Michigan health website, more than 25,000 residents have died and 1.4 million have been infected.