The Detroit Free Press takes a deep dive into the impacts of the Delta Variant of COVID 19, citing the latest Back to Normal Barometer findings regarding consumer attitudes on masks
It’s all about delta.
The highly contagious coronavirus variant that originated in India has gained a foothold across the country and is creeping up in Michigan with 182 identified cases as of Friday — more than double the number of identified cases in the mitten state three days earlier.
And the mutation is leaving a cascade of events in its wake.
It’s driving up cases, hospitalizations and deaths — particularly among unvaccinated people — across the country. And it’s unnerving federal public health officials, who now recommend that even vaccinated people, in hot spot areas, wear masks in indoor public places and be tested if they are exposed to someone with a suspected or confirmed case of the virus. Trouble is, variant cases are spreading so fast, almost everywhere in the U.S. is now a hot spot.
It’s prompting health care systems, including a half-dozen in Michigan, to mandate that workers get COVID-19 vaccines or lose their jobs; and it’s compelling federal officials and leaders in some cities and states to require that government workers show proof of vaccination or be subject to regular coronavirus testing.
The variant also is propelling a harder push for vaccinations, even though federal public health officials say those who are fully vaccinated could still contract the virus and carry the same viral load as an unvaccinated person, potentially spreading the virus to the most vulnerable — unvaccinated adults, children, or people who are immunocompromised.
And it’s causing more people to roll up their sleeves and get more COVID-19 shots in arms, particularly in parts of the country with high case rates and low vaccination rates, as public health officials say the vaccines reduce the chance of serious illness, hospitalization and death.
“I really think that people need to pay attention to the case numbers, and as those are climbing up, it’s time to take action now,” said Rebecca Burns, health officer for the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency. “There’s not time to waste.”
Michigan holding its own
Michigan is looking far rosier than the rest of the country — at least for now.
It’s one of the last holdouts in terms of seven-day coronavirus case counts per 100,000 people and community transmission, according to federal data. But there are indicators that may change.
Only Michigan, South Dakota, Vermont and four U.S. territories, including Guam, had the lowest seven-day case rates per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention COVID-19 tracker Friday. Michigan’s positivity rate was 3% to 4.9%.
Michigan was one of six states, as well as Guam, listed with moderate community transmission level as of Friday. It was the only state in the Midwest with that designation. All of its nearby neighbors — Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin — had substantial community transmission, according to the CDC tracker.
The other five states with moderate community transmission were Pennsylvania, Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The CDC listed the remainder of the states in the U.S. with substantial or high community transmission levels.
In Michigan, the CDC listed 17 counties with substantial community transmission for the time frame July 23 through Thursday. They were: Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Benzie, Cass, Charlevoix, Delta, Dickinson, Hillsdale, Ionia, Iron, Jackson, Mason, Montmorency, Ontonagon, Saginaw and Van Buren.
Branch and Kalkaska counties were listed with high community transmission.
Some of the counties with high or substantial transmission rates coincide with counties that have low COVID-19 vaccination rates.
‘Honey versus the stick’
“We are very concerned about the rapid increase of positive cases that we’re seeing, especially in Branch County. … I am recommending that people follow the CDC recommendation in areas with substantial and high risk for community transmission to wear a mask when indoors, in public,” said Burns, health officer for Branch, Hillsdale and St. Joseph counties.
All three counties have low, first-dose vaccination rates for residents age 12 and older: Branch County’s is 43.6%, Hillsdale County’s is 39.6% and St. Joseph County’s is 45.1%, according to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine dashboard.
As of Friday, more than 5.1 million Michiganders age 16 and older (63.5% of that population) have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the dashboard. Fifty-eight percent of residents age 12 and older have received at least one dose and 54% are fully vaccinated.
Burns said reasons for vaccine hesitancy are “all over the board,” but most is driven by misinformation. She speculated that some of that also may be the result of strong, conservative political beliefs.
She said the health agency had a 30-day vaccination campaign that coincided with the state’s “MI Shot To Win” vaccine sweepstakes, where it would point residents to a vaccination location. The agency also is going to mail a “myths and facts” postcard to census tracts where vaccination rates are low.
“There are people who would get the vaccine, but are scared with regard to what family or friends or neighbors might say if they find out that they got the vaccine,” Burns said.
For example, she said the agency offers in-home vaccinations, and recently someone reached out and said: ” ‘I’d like you to come to my house to give me this vaccine, but please don’t bring that mobile van that has Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joe all over it advertising who you are.’ …. It’s certainly very obvious that the health department is there.”
Burns said she’s not aware of any connections among the delta variant cases there, “but that is what our case investigator is trying to do. But so far we haven’t found that link.” She said those becoming ill primarily chose not to get vaccinated and may not be cooperative with case investigators.
When asked about a county public health mandate, Burns said “you know, public health orders are not popular here and tend to be difficult to enforce.”
“So we really try to work things in a different manner. The big stick doesn’t always work, right? Trying to inform people and encourage them to move in the right direction tends to be better. Honey versus the stick, right?”
The million-dollar question
But the delta variant isn’t just in Branch and St. Joseph counties.
Cases have been identified in 39 counties in the state, as well as the city of Detroit. Sixteen cases involved out-of-state residents, according to state health department data Friday.
Three weeks ago, the delta variant cases total in Michigan was 54.
Oakland County had the highest number of delta variant cases. However, it’s also the second most populous county in Michigan.
Four counties with substantial community transmission according to the CDC — Allegan, Alpena, Cass and Saginaw — also have identified delta variant cases, according to state data.
It also identified seven cases of the delta variant in Detroit. Just over 40% of Detroiters have received at least one dose of vaccine. The city was hit early and hard in the pandemic last year with cases and deaths.
Denise Fair, Detroit’s chief public health officer, said the city has “the most robust vaccination outreach effort anywhere,” and includes vaccination locations at churches and community centers, a mobile unit, home-based inoculations and drive-through and pop-up centers.
“We are proud of the fact that Detroit continues to lead all jurisdictions in Michigan with its rate of new doses administered. It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of Detroiters making vaccines a top priority,” she said. “Following anticipated CDC guidance, the city of Detroit will be ready to pivot regarding a potential third, or booster, shot to further protect against the delta variant.”
No U.S. public health officials have said a booster is needed. But the nation of Israel has said it will offer a booster to those age 60 and older.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan bottomed out from the last surge on July 11, when 205 people at hospitals statewide had confirmed cases of the coronavirus, state health department data shows.
In the last two weeks, COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen 55% to 317 — still a far cry from the peak of hospitalizations this year. On April 19, at the height of the spring surge, 4,219 people were hospitalized with confirmed cases of the virus.
The percentage of positive coronavirus tests also is rising in Michigan. It climbed above 5% on Monday for the first time since May 25, after dropping to 1.1% on June 29.
On Friday, the state health department confirmed 2,250 new coronavirus cases over the last three days — averaging 750 new cases per day.
Officials with the Michigan Association of Local Public Health said Wednesday that they anticipate cases to rise in the fall as people and activities move indoors and in-person instruction at schools resumes.
“I would say that we’re definitely bracing for a potential surge of some sort, but we are also hopeful that there will be limiting factors to that surge,” said Norm Hess, the association’s executive director.
But, he said, Michigan is in a different place now than it was last summer, with many people now vaccinated and more information about how to manage the virus if people start to show symptoms.
“I think the million-dollar question is how high will (the cases) go with the vaccination rates and other factors,” said Nick Derusha, association president, and director and health officer of the Luce, Mackinac, Alger, Schoolcraft (LMAS) District Health Department in the Upper Peninsula.
About 35,000 fully vaccinated people are contracting symptomatic coronavirus infections in the U.S. each week, according to internal CDC slides obtained by the Washington Post.
They suggest the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine works against severe illness and death from the delta variant. It’s 80% to 90% effective against symptomatic infection, and 90% to 95% effective against severe disease in data from other countries, said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health in Rhode Island, in a series of tweets about the CDC documents. Because the Moderna vaccine uses a similar mRNA technology, scientists say it can be assumed it performs similarly against the delta variant.
Vaccinated people are three times less likely to contract the delta variant and 10 times less likely to die from it than those who are unvaccinated, the leaked documents show. But vaccinated people can be just as contagious as unvaccinated people.
The CDC documents suggest the delta variant is more transmissible than Ebola, smallpox and polio. And it spreads as easily as chicken pox. They urge public health officials to “acknowledge the war has changed,” and insist that “given higher transmissibility and current vaccine coverage, universal masking is essential to reduce transmission.”
A tool in the toolbox
An online survey in mid-July of 531 Americans, indicated 40% were wearing masks in the presence of others, with 30% of respondents in the Midwest more likely to wear them.
The survey also found that 41% of consumers think it will be necessary to extend the federal mandate that all airline passengers wear masks on flights past mid-September.
“Our tracking data has shown sentiment consistently trending away from supporting resumption of COVID-related restrictions or mandates,” said Jon Last, president of Sports and Leisure Research Group, which, with ROKK Solutions, conducted the survey. “(The) revised CDC guidance could foreshadow increased tensions among an already highly politicized and volatile situation.”
Ron Bonjean, a partner at ROKK Solutions, said “patience is growing thin among Americans being forced to comply with federal mask mandates. As mask mandates begin to cover much of the country and our nation’s schools, it is likely that this is going to receive negative reaction, especially from those who are vaccinated.”
Derusha said he was not aware of any local public health departments that have instituted a mask requirement within their local jurisdictions.
Hess said, at this time, there are very few counties in Michigan with high community transmission “and so those (mask mandates) wouldn’t necessarily be a tool that people would pull out of their toolbox right now.”
Gina Badamo, owner of Deep Cuts Barbershop in Mount Clemens, said she has at least 10 people a day in her chair, and very few come in with a mask. Badamo, who is not vaccinated, said she will offer to put on a mask if it makes the client feel more comfortable.
Badamo, who opened the shop in September with established barbers like herself and their existing clientele, said the layout has the barber chairs socially distanced and she is awaiting a sanitizing robot with an ultraviolet light to run nightly.
She said they have followed what mandates there have been and will mask up again if they have to. When asked about the recent CDC guidance, she said “it’s upsetting that there are so many questions.”
Alaya Stitts, of Shelby Township, said she has not gotten the vaccine, saying people don’t know enough about it yet.
“You can still catch (the virus) whether you have been vaccinated or not,” she said.
Stitts said she still wears a mask in stores and at malls, but she wasn’t wearing one Thursday at the time a Free Press reporter stopped in to the Eastpointe store she manages, Swank A Posh Boutique.
Karla Young and Dalaina Toombs, both of Clinton Township, were wearing masks while shopping at the store, and both said they have been vaccinated. Both said they would be OK with a mask mandate, with Toombs adding: “you never know who’s vaccinated and who’s not.”
But regarding the newest CDC guidance, Young said: “they contradict what they say and it’s sending mixed messages.”
Keeping people they care about safe
Some Michigan restaurants are starting to feel the pinch just days after the CDC’s new guidance.
“They’re starting to experience reduced traffic for inside dining already,” said Justin Winslow, president of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, of what he is hearing anecdotally from members.
He said that brings up many factors, with some cities scaling back outdoor dining opportunities — spots where diners, in general, feel safer. He said while people are spending more “we have real concerns about traffic starting to ebb.”
Winslow said he does not anticipate capacity restrictions and that it would be a “tremendous transition” from where the state is now for it to consider that again. He said there’s a very localized approach on things such as employees or guests wearing masks.
“You’re not gonna get the same feel in Ann Arbor as you are in Alpena on how they approach the virus,” he said.
Winslow said while there have been incentives for people get vaccinated, he’s not hearing any talk of an employee mandate to do so, such as in health care and some government settings. He said a multi-city tour with incentives for restaurant, hospitality and retail workers to get inoculated got more than 1,000 Michiganders vaccinated.
“It helped,” he said. “But there’s just not a silver bullet this far into the game.”
On Friday, the Marble Bar in Detroit began trying something different — requiring patrons to show their COVID-19 vaccination card or proof of a negative coronavirus test within the last 48 hours with their state-issued ID at the door.
The decision “definitely wasn’t made lightly, and it was a really hard decision to make,” said Kory Trinks, manager of the weekend dance club that can host 500 to 600 people at one time, and 500 to 800 patrons during the course of a night.
“We’re really just trying to keep the people we care about safe.”
Patrons age 21 and older are packed in close together and it’s hard to enforce a mask mandate with that many people, Trinks said. It’s also unclear who is vaccinated and who is not.
The staff is vaccinated, she said, but cannot afford to be out of work again after pandemic closures that shuttered or brought capacity restrictions to restaurants, bars and other establishments for the last year.
“We’re a small business … we’re really just trying to keep our doors open. We want to be back to work,” Trinks said. “Our decision was based on trying to keep our business able to be open and be successful, without our staff being sick and at risk.”
Trinks said discussions about the new requirements began as the delta variant began to creep its way into the community, and they learned about several people, who are patrons of the bar, who became sick with the virus.
She said the response from staff and patrons to the policy of showing proof of vaccination or a negative test has been overwhelmingly supportive. But there are some people on the internet with alternate opinions, ranging from making threats to calling them Nazis.
Trinks said they took some pointers from what clubs did in other cities, such as Los Angeles and New York City.
“We’re hoping this is something we don’t have to implement forever, but for the time being, while the delta variant makes its way through the Detroit community,” she said.
“We’re not asking anyone to go get the shot. We’re not suggesting anyone get the COVID-19 vaccine. We’re only asking that if you do not have the vaccine, to show proof that you don’t have COVID within the last 48 hours, and to us that seems very reasonable.”
‘Live in fear or faith’
Belinda Loggins said she had been teetering on the idea of getting the coronavirus vaccine within the last month.
On Friday, the Harrison Township woman and 44-year employee at Henry Ford Health System, got the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine in her right arm.
Loggins, 65, who works in registration services, patient property and decedent affairs at the main campus in Detroit, said her biggest concern in the beginning was fear. She heard more negative feedback than positive, with some people having a lot of side effects after getting the vaccine.
“I was concerned how my body would respond,” said Loggins, a cancer survivor. “As time went on, we heard more positive than negative. So here I am.”
She said it was time for her to decide whether she wanted to “live in fear or faith.”
“I had to decide if I would care about making sure I and my family were safe and my patients were safe,” said Loggins, who also works as a receptionist at the James H. Cole Home for Funerals.
She said a mandate announced in June by the Henry Ford Health System for employees to get the vaccine or face losing their jobs didn’t affect her decision to get inoculated.
Loggins said she hasn’t had the virus, but she lived with a friend who did and died.
“I think God has given us a platform and given us a space where we can share this,” she said. “Let’s do it together.”
Kristina Alexander, another Henry Ford Health System employee, also received her first of two Pfizer doses at an employee vaccination clinic in Detroit.
The 36-year-old Oak Park mother, who is working remotely from home in central authorization, said she was always going to get the vaccine “but I just didn’t make time.”
She was off Friday and got the jab in her left arm. The nine-year employee said she was the last in her family to get the vaccine and always waits until December to get her influenza vaccine.
“Right now,” she said to those on the fence about the vaccine, “just get the shot.”