A closer look at COVID in Washtenaw County

Medical notations are written on a window of a COVID-19 patient's room in an intensive care unit at the Willis-Knighton Medical Center in Shreveport, La., Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. The windows were added to the doors to keep the rooms closed for quarantining, which would normally be open in an ICU unit there. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Gerald Herbert, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ANN ARBOR – As COVID cases continue to rise in Michigan, what’s happening here in Washtenaw County?

A4 recently spoke with Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, Washtenaw County Health Department’s Communications and Health Promotion Administrator, who shared some insight into vaccination rates, hospitalizations and whether or not the Health Department will implement an emergency order mask mandate.

With cases trending upward, Washtenaw County is not alone, said Ringler-Cerniglia, who added that the highly contagious delta variant is likely to blame for the spike.

As cases emerge in both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals, she said the Health Department has been hearing from people wanting an explanation for why the vaccine doesn’t always protect individuals from the virus.

“We always have to reinforce this idea that vaccination, while it is still very much our best tool for essentially ending the pandemic because it can provide both that individual protection and is effective in reducing spread, it’s a medical intervention, so it’s not 100% effective,” said Ringler-Cerniglia. “I like to compare it to things like birth control or seatbelts, or even taking a Tylenol or an ibuprofen.

“Does it have effectiveness? Yes. Does it protect 100%? No. It’s very protective against the initial strain. It’s not as high -- but still high -- against the delta variant.”

Additionally, she said hospitalizations on a broad scale are impacting those who are unvaccinated and those who are vaccinated but who have underlying medical conditions, which can render the vaccine less effective.

Confirmed cases in Washtenaw County residents by symptom onset week have risen steadily since late June, when new cases stood at 18 during the week ending June 26. For the week ending Aug. 18, the number of new cases rose to 300 -- Washtenaw County’s highest new case count since the beginning of May.

Washtenaw’s highest-ever confirmed weekly case count was during this year’s spring surge when 1,309 new cases were recorded during the week ending April 10.

As K-12 schools and universities prepare to reopen for the 2021-2022 academic year, many fear those numbers could skyrocket.

Watch: Michigan health department recommends universal masking in schools for beginning of 2021-22 school year

Several local school districts, universities and colleges have already declared mask mandates to provide further protection for students returning to school buildings. These include:

  • Ann Arbor Public Schools
  • Dexter Community Schools
  • Milan Area Schools
  • University of Michigan
  • Eastern Michigan University
  • Washtenaw Community College

Read: Tracking Michigan school districts, colleges requiring masks for 2021-2022 school year

Both the Washtenaw County Health Department and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have issued recommendations for students to wear masks in school buildings to reduce spread of COVID-19 this fall.

“It is literally our job to look at what’s going on, to look at the best information and to provide the recommendations and guidance,” said Ringler-Cerniglia. “That process is not intended to need mandates or orders. Right now, in particular with the masks, what is the possible legitimate reason to not have universal masking in schools where a proportion of the kids cannot be vaccinated?”

While the Health Department has the ability to issue a countywide mask mandate under the Michigan Public Health Code, enforcing it is the issue, said Ringler-Cerniglia.

“We do have the ability to issue those orders,” she said. “Then what happens when we do that is our resources really get shifted to enforcements and complaints. Is that really where our resources are really effective during the pandemic? I’d argue not.

“We’re in this politicized climate in public health and guidance. Our public health code that we rely on for so many things is being questioned and threatened and being brought to legal questioning. That’s really frightening.”

One slight silver lining over the summer has been a slight rise in vaccinations during the month of August.

Ringler-Cerniglia said this was in part due to people who had waited to see how the vaccine impacted their friends, family and acquaintances, and people who reported feeling vulnerable with rising cases and the presence of the delta variant.

Read: Washtenaw County Health Department offers booster doses to immunocompromised residents

The Health Department continues to send mobile units to nursing homes, small groups and home visits, while also holding pop-up vaccination clinics in underserved areas.

Residents can also walk-in to the Health Department at 555 Towner in Ypsilanti to get the vaccine on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays between the hours of 9-11:30 a.m. and 1-3:30 p.m.

For more information on vaccination sites in Washtenaw County, click here.