Michigan’s top medical official explains true severity of state’s recent COVID-19 spike

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun says 'data is not looking so good'

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and the MI Safe Start Map (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan’s top medical official spoke specifically about the state’s recent increase in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases Thursday and broke down the actual severity of the situation.

Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, the chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, spoke during Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus briefing Thursday morning.

READ: Gov. Whitmer threatens stricter laws if Michigan residents refuse to ‘mask up’

“So right now, the data is not looking so good,” Khaldun said. “While we are certainly not in the extreme situation we were in this past spring, we do need to get back on track and in the right direction again.”

Khaldun noted that cases have been increasing statewide for the past three weeks, with some areas seeing higher numbers than others.

The Grand Rapids Region has had three straight weeks of increasing rates of cases, Khaldun said. The region is now at 45 cases per million people per day, which is higher than the other seven regions.

Not sure how the regions are broken down? Here are the regions for all 83 Michigan counties.

The Detroit, Lansing and Kalamazoo regions have more than 20 cases per million people per day, she said.

The Traverse City, Jackson and Upper Peninsula regions are all under 20 cases per million people per day, according to the state. Those regions have seen a steady increase for the past two or three weeks, though.

Khaldun didn’t specify the numbers for the Saginaw Region, but the state’s MI Safe Start Map indicates it is also at “medium risk,” along with the Jackson, Kalamazoo, Traverse City and Upper Peninsula regions.

Both the Lansing and Grand Rapids regions are considered “high risk,” while the Detroit Region is considered “medium-high risk.”

“It’s important to note here that the Upper Peninsula, which I’ve previously seen consistently low levels of cases, is now seeing the highest rate of cases seen throughout the entire pandemic,” Khaldun said. “So I want to help the province. As was discussed before, they continue to work diligently to respond to these cases and investigate outbreaks. Some of the locations associated with these outbreaks include food processing plants, bars, a casino, religious gatherings and congregate care facilities. But there’s also evidence of general community spread.”

Khaldun said the state’s hospitalization and death rates have not increased during the most recent uptick in confirmed positive cases. But she noted that in other states, that has often followed this type of spike.

“We have seen in other states is that hospitalizations and deaths tend to increase seven weeks after the cases are identified,” Khaldun said. “So we still have to watch this data very closely, and it’s very likely that these numbers will go up in the upcoming weeks.”

Khaldun said the state has continued to increase testing, with an average of more than 18,000 tests performed each day over the last week.

“That’s actually 3,000 more tests than the previous week, which is now testing more than we have throughout the entire outbreak,” Khaldun said. “But this is not the only reason for the increase in cases that we are seeing. The percent of tests done that are coming back positive has also slowly increased from 2% to 3%, and what this implies is that we are also seeing increases in cases, because there’s true spread of the disease.”

Whitmer revealed she’s considering strengthening the mask laws in Michigan if people continue to disregard the precautions designed to slow the spread of the virus.

“Right now, the law requires that anyone in an enclosed public space has to wear a mask, and that means every store you’re going into,” Whitmer said. “We’re reviewing that requirement and considering whether or not we need to take this a step further, to strengthen compliance, because we cannot let our guard down.”

Khaldun implored Michigan residents to follow the governor’s lead.

“We all have a role to play,” Khaldun said. “So please, as the governor said, wear your mask if you’re leaving your house and going to a public space. You’re not only protecting yourself and your loved ones, you’re protecting the lives of our frontline health care workers. ... Maintain six feet of distance between yourself and others. Do not gather in large groups. Several of the outbreaks that we’re seeing across the state are because people are just not being smart about this and they are taking unnecessary risk.”

She said expanded testing is still critically important to identifying cases and containing the spread of COVID-19 across the state. Anyone who needs to get a test should seek one out, she said.

“Our greatest challenge right now with our contact tracing is our public health officials often don’t have the correct telephone number or people are simply not answering the phone,” Khaldun said.

Other than the Upper Peninsula and Traverse City Region, the entire state remains in the fourth phase of Whitmer’s reopening plan -- the “Improving” phase.

Whitmer moved the entire state to phase four on June 1 after it was stuck in phase three for more than three weeks -- since the MI Safe Start Plan was introduced May 7.

She originally planned to move to phase five by the Fourth of July weekend, but that plan changed as the number of new daily cases steadily rose late last month and into July. The Traverse City and Upper Peninsula regions remain the only two in phase five.

Whitmer already shut down indoor bar services last week after outbreaks linked to bars in East Lansing, Royal Oak and Romulus and a rise in positive cases in the 20-29 age group.

READ: Michigan bars, restaurants can now deliver alcoholic drinks, sell them to-go, offer 2-for-1 deals

More coverage

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Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.