It has officially been two years since the first coronavirus cases were reported in the state of Michigan, and nothing has been the same since.
The pandemic has been constantly changing over the past few years, shifting from periods of rampant infection to periods of near-dormancy. But still, it’s safe to say that the impact of COVID-19 has been relentless despite the shifts, and though cases are currently declining, that impact will be felt for a while.
After a monthslong surge that saw record case numbers and hospitalizations in Michigan, COVID spread has been slowing in recent weeks throughout the state, nation and world. The decline has inspired many regions and institutions to reconsider protocols and mandates, and lift face mask requirements altogether.
But despite the progress and much-welcomed breath of fresh air for many, health experts say they aren’t considering the pandemic to be over just yet. Rather, the pandemic may take a different shape going forward, but it’s still expected to hang around for a while.
Beaumont Health official Dr. Nicholas Gilpin held a news briefing on Thursday, March 10, to mark the second anniversary of COVID in Michigan, how it has affected health care workers and the industry, and what to expect as we move forward.
Here are some key takeaways from the briefing. You can watch the entire briefing in the video player down below.
Pandemic vs. endemic
During the news conference Thursday, Dr. Gilpin recognized that COVID numbers in Southeast Michigan are at a lower point than they have been in the last seven months, but that doesn’t mean health care workers are considering the pandemic to be over.
Gilpin says that those who work in public health are still thinking about and preparing for another potential COVID variant or surge in infections that could trigger a surge in hospitalizations.
“...this is a good time to hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” Gilpin said. “I’m using this time, this sort of quiet time, to fortify our position in terms of resources, to start prepping for whatever may come next, making sure we’re stocked up on tests, making sure that we’ve got masks, cleaning supplies, all the things that we need to survive another surge.”
According to Gilpin, the chief medical officer for Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Southeast Michigan is a “rich environment” for the coronavirus, as there are a lot of people who live here, and still a significant number of people who have not been vaccinated and who have never been infected.
“... in all those people are opportunities for the virus to infect, to reassert itself in some way, to make new copies of itself and to try to make itself more contagious, and perhaps more deadly,” Gilpin said Thursday.
The doctor said that while no one is rooting for new COVID-19 variants that could be more dangerous to come along, it would be “foolish” for health care systems not to be “mindful of that possibility.”
“... We have to recognize that if this virus is going to mutate, again, if it’s going to make a new variant, a new version of itself, it will be more contagious,” Gilpin said. “It will have to be more contagious, in order to outpace what came before it.”
Though some are saying it’s time to shift the term from “pandemic” to “endemic,” which means that the disease is commonplace in an area, many experts are saying we have not reached that point quite yet. “Pandemic” is defined as “a worldwide spread of a new disease,” by the World Health Organization, while an “endemic” describes a disease that is commonplace or restricted to a particular area.
Because COVID-19 is still constantly mutating, officials say it is not accurate to declare the disease endemic yet. Dr. Gilpin said Thursday that he doesn’t love the term “endemic” because he thinks it “sends a little bit of the wrong message ... Endemic does not necessarily mean good, right?”
Masking not gone for good
With community transmission on the decline across Metro Detroit and Southeast Michigan, many are lifting mask mandates that were implemented to help curb virus spread.
But Dr. Gilpin says that he thinks that “some element of masking” will stick around for a while, especially in health care facilities. According to the doctor, Beaumont Health is considering keeping masking requirements during months where respiratory viruses are active, particularly November through March. The masking would help prevent the spread of the flu and other respiratory viruses, in addition to COVID.
Some non-clinical areas of Beaumont Health, like an administrative building, for example, will likely start shifting away from face masks within the next week or so “barring any changes,” Gilpin said. In those instances, masking will be optional.
But, if community transmission rises once again, mask mandates are also expected to resume.
“... If community transmission goes back up again, and if we start to find ourselves in a5%-10% transmission, or if we start to find ourselves having more hospitalizations related to COVID, we’ll have to go back and say, ‘Alright, I’m going to put those masks on again,’” Gilpin said. “And I think that’s kind of what the world is going to look like for a little while: it’s doing this kind of back-and-forth dance between masking and no masking.”
Telemedicine: The silver lining
According to Gilpin, one of the most commonly cited silver linings of the pandemic is the implementation of telemedicine and the benefits it offers.
According to Gilpin, if it weren’t for the pandemic, telemedicine -- the practice of receiving health-related services and information online -- would not have gained popularity and been expanded and offered on the scale that it has been the last few years.
“... Just being frank with you, there’s no way that telemedicine would be as widely available today as it is, if not for COVID,” Gilpin said. “It really jumpstarted that whole process of being able to implement this rapidly.”
Gilpin says that telemedicine will continue to allow health systems to provide health care access to people who can’t, or don’t want to, physically go into a health care facility.
You can watch the entire briefing in the video player below.