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New COVID variants, relaxed public restrictions cause spike in Michigan hospitalizations

Even as more Americans receive vaccinations, parts of the U.S. are seeing a troubling surge in COVID cases. This is especially true for the upper Midwest and Northeast. Michigan is struggling with an especially strong spike. William Brangham speaks to Dr. Nicholas Gilpin of Beaumont Health System about the reasons behind the state’s infection trends.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even as vaccinations are rising substantially in this country, parts of the U.S., particularly in the Upper Midwest and Northeast, are now seeing a surge in COVID cases.

    Michigan is struggling with an especially strong spike.

    William Brangham has an update about what is happening there.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, if you were to look at a line on a graph of new cases in Michigan, it's been curving higher and higher since early March and then worsening over the past two weeks.

    The state is averaging more than 6,400 new cases a day over the last week. Hospitalizations are rising as well. And a data analysis by The New York Times finds the six worst metro areas in the country with new outbreaks, relative to their population, are all in Michigan.

    Dr. Nick Gilpin is deeply involved in dealing with all of this. He's the medical director of infection prevention and epidemiology at the Beaumont Health System. And he joins me now.

    Dr. Gilpin, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Obviously, you're quite swamped in what you're dealing with right now.

    Can you just give us a sense of what you're seeing in your hospitals?

  • Dr. Nicholas Gilpin:

    Yes. Happy to.

    Well, we're certainly swamped. That's probably an understatement, frankly. This is, I would say, our third surge of COVID that we have experienced in the last year. Our first and by far mightiest surge was back in March and April of 2020. We had a bit of a respite in the summertime. And then we experienced our second big surge in the fall and winter.

    And then we had another brief respite in the later part of January and February. And then that's culminated in this familiar drumbeat of cases, hospitalizations and test positivity rates rising at really an unprecedented rate.

    When we look back at activity that we have experienced in the past, the slope of this line is alarming, to say the least.

  • William Brangham:

    And you told one of my colleagues that you're seeing test positivity rates in the 15 percent to 20 percent range, which is a lot of virus circulating in your community.

    Do you have a sense of what is driving those high rates?

  • Dr. Nicholas Gilpin:

    I do.

    I think, for starters, what we're seeing in terms of these astronomically high positivity rates is, this has all kind of come on the tails of a relaxation in restrictions. So, for the better part of the winter, and after the holidays, bars and restaurants were predominantly closed, mass gatherings were discouraged.

    And then, as case numbers started to decline, a lot of those restrictions were relaxed. So, I think what you're seeing is a lot of people were, frankly, tired of COVID. They want to get together. They want to see their family. They're starting to get vaccinated.

    And so there is this sense of people getting together more in the community. That is one-half of the equation. I think the other half of the equation is, we're seeing a lot more of these COVID variants, specifically the B117, or the U.K. variant, which is absolutely in our backyard right now in Michigan.

    I believe we're the second highest state in terms of B117. And we know that the B117 is not only more transmissible, but also potentially more deadly as well. So, you put those two things together, relaxed restrictions, and a B117 more transmissible variant, and I think that accounts for why you're seeing so many more cases.

  • William Brangham:

    And you were saying that hospitalizations have been going up, but are you seeing a similar rise in the deaths? Or are we still doing a pretty good job of keeping those people alive?

  • Nicholas Gilpin:

    Yes, great question. Not yet.

    I think what I'm seeing right now is an overall rise in the number of hospitalizations, a slightly younger demographic of patients, which, when you think about it, makes sense, because we're doing a very good job of vaccinating older individuals.

    So, we're driving that vulnerable population down to a younger age. So, instead of see predominantly 60-somethings, now we're seeing 50-somethings and even some 40-somethings. And that's really what we're seeing most the most of in our hospitals right now.

    With regard to how sick these patients are, it's a little too early to say for sure, but the early trends are favorable. These patients don't appear to be as sick. They don't seem to be quite as intensive in terms of the resources that they require. We're not seeing a lot of ventilator use, a lot of ICU utilization.

    But, again, it's very early still.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, this has got to be so incredibly frustrating for you, because, as you're saying, you're doing a pretty good job as a state in vaccinating enough people.

    And yet now these variants that have snuck in are seeming to threaten that real miraculous progress that we're making.

  • Nicholas Gilpin:

    A hundred percent.

    And I think the takeaway here that I would like to offer to folks is getting vaccinated is great. And I'm glad that we're doing so well at that. But it's not the end-all/be-all to stopping COVID transmission.

    I think we have to continue to be diligent. We have to continue to wear our masks and do our physical distancing. We have got to do everything as a community to stop transmission.

    There's fundamentally — as a hospital, there is very little that I can do to stop transmission from happening in the community.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Nick Gilpin of Beaumont Health Systems in Michigan, thanks very much for being here. And best of luck to you dealing with what you're dealing with.

  • Nicholas Gilpin:

    Thank you.

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