LANSING, Mich. – Michigan’s top doctor provided a thorough update on the state’s COVID situation Friday, talking about how long the current lull in cases might last, addressing the likelihood of upcoming surges, monitoring the BA.2 variant and calling the chance of eliminating the virus anytime soon a “pipe dream.”
Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, joined a virtual town hall panel Friday (March 25) to discuss the current state of the pandemic.
Here are our takeaways from her comments:
‘How long will this last?’
“We’re in a relatively good place right now in the pandemic,” Bagdasarian said. “The question is how long this will last. We recently went through a surge of delta variant, and that was followed very closely by the omicron variant surge. So we’re in a place now that is relatively safer than how things have looked for the last several months.”
Bagdasarian said the state is even more focused on how the future COVID landscape could affect residents in terms of serious illness and hospitalizations.
“What that really means is that our case rates are down -- they’re down all across the state and really in most parts of the country right now -- but it also means that our health systems are less stressed,” Bagdasarian said. “That was a big problem for us in the fall and the winter. Our health systems were really feeling the strain of COVID. So we are in a better place in terms of case rates, in terms of the type of testing that’s going on and how many people are testing positive, and then, of course, in terms of how our health systems are faring.
“When I say it’s unclear how long this will last, I say that because we’re in what we’re calling a ‘recovery period.’ This is a period where our community members should feel relatively safer than they have for the last several months, but it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, nor does it mean that we are out of the woods.”
Cases in Michigan have fallen dramatically since the winter surge, but officials are watching the rest of the world to try to prepare for what could come next.
“What we’re doing at the moment is looking around us -- looking at other states and other countries -- and doing what I’m calling ‘horizon scanning,’ and looking for the next threat here to us in Michigan,” Bagdasarian said. “That could be from a change in the weather, where we would expect to see increased cases. It could be when schools reopen in the fall, or it could be a variant of concern. So we’re in this lower risk period, but there will be a time where we come out of this lower risk period and where we start to see more cases again.”
Listen to Bagdasarian’s full comments on this topic:
Bagdasarian said she thinks COVID cases will eventually rise again in Michigan, but the question is how serious the resulting illnesses will be.
“I think we will see future waves of cases,” she said. “We will see future surges of cases, and what we are aiming to do is to prevent severe outcome and death. What we’re really looking at around the world are any markers that signal to us (that) we could be seeing a wave that is going to impact us in terms of those severe outcomes.”
Elimination of COVID soon a ‘pipe dream’
Even though Michigan has taken strides toward controlling the spread of COVID, Bagdasarian doesn’t think the virus will be eliminated from our lives anytime soon.
“There will be cases of COVID-19,” Bagdasarian said. “I think that the virus has entrenched itself here in a way that elimination of the virus anytime in the near future is a pipe dream.”
She said the more realistic goal is to continue protecting ourselves from the severity of the virus as much as possible.
“We are not able to eliminate COVID infections right now, but what we’re trying to do is prevent those severe outcomes, which means that if you are vaccinated and boosted, your risk of having a severe outcome is significantly less,” Bagdasarian said. “The best way to protect yourself and make sure that even if you do contract COVID, it’s a milder case, is to make sure you’re vaccinated and boosted, and then for those who are at higher risk -- there are both pre-exposure prophylaxis medications that we have available, as well as therapeutic options if you do get COVID.”
Listen to Bagdasarian’s talk about future surges, eliminating COVID and more:
Many recent COVID surges in Michigan and beyond have been sparked by new variants, such as delta and omicron. Currently, officials are monitoring the BA.2 variant.
“Of course, as a state, we continue to look around us, look at other countries, look at other states,” Bagdasarian said. “Right now, we’re very closely watching what’s happening with BA.2 around the world.”
Previous variants of COVID often became predominant in other countries before eventually spreading to the United States and, ultimately, Michigan. State officials are keeping an eye on the possibility of that history repeating itself with BA.2.
“As many of you may have heard, there have been increases in cases of BA.2 in places like the United Kingdom, in Asia and in other parts of Europe,” Bagdasarian said. “So we’re watching those very closely to see what that could mean for Michigan.
“But again, if we see an increase in cases but we’re not seeing severe outcomes, people are not ending up in the hospital, if they’re not dying from COVID, that’s really what we’re trying to prevent now. ... We’re going to continue to look around us, look at other countries, look at other states and inform the public here in Michigan appropriately if we do see another surge imminent.”
Vaccine guidance changing?
About two-thirds of eligible Michiganders have received a COVID vaccine, according to experts. Bagdasarian said that needs to increase.
“Again, the best way to make sure that you are safe for future surges is to make sure that you are vaccinated and to make sure that you have had your booster,” Bagdasarian said.
When the vaccine first became available about a year ago, the Pfizer and Moderna versions required two doses and the Johnson & Johnson version one dose. Then, as experts collected more data, a booster shot was recommended six months after the two-dose shots and two months after the J&J shot.
Bagdasarian said guidance around vaccines will continue to evolve because COVID-19 is still considered relatively new.
“Guidance around (vaccinations) is likely to change in upcoming months,” Bagdasarian said. “It’s very possible that there may be more boosters in the future, and that’s only because the virus has been with us for a short time and we’re still learning about long-term immunity.”
She offered a few final thoughts at the end of the discussion.
“I just want to close out by reminding everyone that the pandemic is not over,” Bagdasarian said. “COVID is not going away. COVID is going to be with us, and again, the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is to get vaccinated now before the next surge of cases. Michigan -- we are lagging in terms of other states, in terms of our vaccine uptake, and the best way to protect ourselves as a state and as a community is to make sure that no one is left behind. We have tools, we just have to utilize them.”
You can hear her full final statement below:
Here is the full 43-minute virtual discussion, with comments from several panelists: