US COVID cases “disturbingly high” as Michigan sees dire spike

An A frame sign tells diners in a downtown patio how to behave.
Enlarge / A sign requiring protective face masks in Detroit, Michigan, on Sunday, March 21, 2021.

Even as the pace of vaccination in the US nears a heartening 3 million per day, the country hovers on the brink of a fourth surge, with current cases lingering at a “disturbingly high level,” according to top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci.

The current seven-day average of new daily cases is now over 63,000—levels seen at the base of the record winter surge. “When you’re at that level, there is the risk of getting a surge back up,” Fauci said in an interview with CNN.

Adding to the precarious situation is the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, first identified in the UK. It is now the predominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the US, Rochelle Walensky (director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said in a White House Press Briefing Wednesday.

“These trends are pointing to two clear truths,” Walensky said. “One, the virus still has hold on us—infecting people and putting them in harm’s way—and we need to remain vigilant. And, two, we need to continue to accelerate our vaccination efforts.”

Now, many experts are eyeing Michigan as a potential bellwether for the fate of the rest of the country. As the variant spreads there, the state is seeing a spike in cases, hospitalization, and deaths, rivaling numbers seen in the winter peak. The B.1.1.7 variant has been detected in 46 of the state’s 83 counties.

Michigan’s case rates are up 375 percent since its previous low on February 19, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said in a recent data update. According to the CDC, the state has a seven-day case rate of 492 per 100,000 people, the highest case rate in the country. Next is New Jersey, with a seven-day-case rate of 328 per 100,000.

Michigan has seen nearly 50,000 cases in the last seven days, also the highest in the country. It currently has a seven-day rolling average of around 7,000 new cases a day, an 89 percent increase from a week ago, according to tracking by The New York Times.

Surge plans

Hospitalizations are above 3,000 in the state, a 124 percent increase from two weeks ago, and the number of patients filling intensive care units has increased 41 percent just in the last week, according to the MDHHS. State projections estimate that ICU use will exceed that seen in the winter peak by Monday, March 12. MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel told reporters Wednesday that hospitals are now looking into implementing their surge plans.

Deaths are also rising now, with an average daily deaths around 36. Since a low on March 9, deaths have increased 75 percent in the state.

The CDC has deployed teams of its public health workers to help with the statewide surge. “We are working closely with the state of Michigan and the state health officials there,” Walensky said Wednesday. The CDC is helping to investigate outbreaks in correctional facilities and youth sports teams. It’s also working to monitor the spread of B.1.1.7 and shift the state’s vaccine supply to the hardest hit areas.

Some experts have questioned whether the Biden administration should send a surge supply of vaccines to the state to try to head off the variant and the spike in cases. Currently, the federal government largely doles out doses based on each state and jurisdiction’s population. But last month, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had asked for a boost in supply to avert the state’s surge. The White House declined the request, however, according to The Washington Post.

In the press conference Wednesday, Andy Slavitt, a senior White House advisor on the pandemic, told reporters that, for now, the administration is largely sticking to its population-based distribution plan.

“We have a long way to go today to get the country to a place where each of our states has reached the number of vaccinations that the population can handle,” Slavitt said. “Clearly, we will get to a place where targeted strategies will work. But right now, I would commit to you that we’re doing both.”