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3 reasons Michigan COVID-19 deaths have remained low despite surge in daily cases

'I cannot ever pretend that I understand someone who would become murderous over (a mask)'

Dr Joneigh Khaldun during the July 15, 2020, coronavirus (COVID-19) briefing.
Dr Joneigh Khaldun during the July 15, 2020, coronavirus (COVID-19) briefing. (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Why have the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) deaths in Michigan remained low while the daily cases steadily rise?

That question was presented to Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, during Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing.

Wednesday was the most extreme example of the trend. While the 891 new confirmed cases marked by far the highest total in Michigan since May 14, only four additional deaths were reported.

Khaldun cited three distinct reasons for the phenomenon.

Type of testing

The most obvious factor is that Michigan is doing more testing, but no, that alone doesn’t account for the dramatic rise in cases.

“What’s different now compared to March and April is we have a lot more testing availability,” Khaldun said.

When testing was limited in Michigan, only symptomatic patients, essential workers and high-risk residents were allowed to get tested.

READ: Whitmer extends Michigan state of emergency until Aug. 11

It makes sense that if the majority of people getting tested are those who are already sick enough to have symptoms, the numbers of deaths relative to the confirmed cases would be much higher.

“In the very beginning, we were testing people who were really only in the hospital, which is unfortunate,” Khaldun said. “But that’s the number of tests we had. Now what we’re seeing is more and more tests.”

Now that Michigan is testing more than 21,000 people per day, the positive cases include more asymptomatic patients, and they’re much less likely to be killed by the virus.

Younger people testing positive

Since the early days of the pandemic, health officials have maintained older people are much more likely to have severe cases of the virus.

That’s still the case, but recent trends have showed that young people are just as likely to get infected.

“We’re also seeing people who are younger -- so 20-29 is the age group that has the highest number of new cases,” Khaldun said. “That age group tends to be a little bit healthier.”

When bars reopened across Michigan, there were several outbreaks that led to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shutting down indoor bar service.

Outbreaks:

“So right now we’re not seeing the hospitalizations and the deaths go up,” Khaldun said.

Nearly 25 percent of diagnoses in June were of people ages 20 to 29, up from roughly 16 percent in May. For example, of the first 138 customers who tested positive from Harper’s, all were between 18 and 28 years old.

Since younger people are much more likely to be asymptomatic or healthy enough to survive the symptoms, the death rate among that age group has remained low while the infection rate rises.

Lagging indicator

Khaldun did note that deaths are a lagging indicator of the coronavirus, so the number of COVID-19 deaths could increase shortly after the spike in cases.

“First you get sick, you get your test and then you fight the disease,” Khaldun said.

During the first major surge of cases in Michigan, the death total showed that trend of lagging a couple of weeks behind the cases. In other words, spikes in cases would be followed by spikes in deaths, but not immediately.

“We see what happened,” Khaldun said. “So I wouldn’t get too complacent about the deaths, and we’re closely watching that, as well as what’s going on in other states.”

More coverage

Here’s much more recent coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitmer’s handling of pandemic:

Reopening Michigan:

Health questions, advice:

Outbreaks:

Unemployment:

Individual stories:

Changes:


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