Get Caught Up: Michigan officials urge schools to double-down on COVID precautions after holiday break

MDHHS urges vaccine clinics, universal masking amid omicron surge

Social distancing markers at the LBJ Student Center at Texas State University in San Marcos on August 24, 2020.

Michigan’s health department is urging Michigan schools to double-down on preventative measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 as students and staff return to buildings after the holiday break.

Get Caught Up” is ClickOnDetroit’s Saturday news review to help readers catch up on the biggest stories of the week.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Michigan Department of Education (MDE) are sending a letter to superintendents with recommendations, intended to keep school buildings open and allow students and staff to return to school safely after winter break.

The guidance comes as Michigan set a new record for daily COVID cases on Wednesday, and the U.S. set a record for daily cases this week, as the omicron variant rapidly spreads. The Detroit Public Schools Community District announced Friday that classes would be canceled at the beginning of next week as the district configures a learning plan amid the COVID surge.

Read: Detroit public schools cancel classes Monday-Wednesday to configure COVID plan

About 21% of the 5-11 age group has at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, about 45% of the 12-15 age group has at least one dose, and about 51% of the 16-19 age group has at least one dose. All three of those numbers are below the national average.

MDHHS continues to reinforce that vaccination remains the best public health measure to protect Michiganders from COVID-19. Children ages 5 and up are eligible to be vaccinated. Schools should encourage all who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and booster dose, and where possible host vaccine clinics to facilitate access for students, families, teachers and staff.

Related: COVID vaccine mandate issued for Detroit public schools staff

The most effective way to prevent transmission within school buildings and reduce prolonged disruptions to in-person learning is to layer multiple prevention strategies as recommended by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Our priority has remained keeping students safe,” said MDHHS director Elizabeth Hertel. “Children ages 5 and older now can get vaccinated. In addition to vaccination, we strongly recommend universal masking for students, teachers and staff. We have the tools to keep Michiganders safe, and we must continue to use them.”

Michigan’s health department is urging Michigan schools to double-down on preventative measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 as students and staff return to buildings after the holiday break.

Related: ‘Just the beginning’: COVID cases expected to continue to rise in Michigan after holidays

Indoor masking

The CDC and MDHHS strongly recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors (age 2 and older), regardless of vaccination status. As Michigan remains in high community transmission, universal indoor masking is a critical prevention strategy for all school districts to allow students to maintain in-person learning. Mask use has been proven to substantially reduce transmission in school settings.

COVID-19 testing

MDHHS also recommends regular testing in all school settings.

Frequent testing can help identify infected people, including those without symptoms who may be contagious, so measures can be taken to prevent further transmission or outbreaks. To support schools that incorporate COVID-19 testing into their safer school prevention plans, MDHHS is offering rapid antigen testing to K-12 schools through the MI Safe Schools Testing Program. To take advantage of this program, schools and school districts should follow this process when submitting rapid antigen test orders.

Schools can participate in the MI Backpack Program, which offers free at-home COVID-19 tests to students, their families, teachers and school staff. School districts interested in participating in this program can fill out this form.

Avoiding large gatherings

As omicron variant cases are anticipated to increase in Michigan, it is important for all schools to review their planned activities for events and gatherings. MDHHS advises modifications to planned activities during and after school where the ability to maintain social distancing between people who live in different households cannot be maintained. Large gatherings (involving 100 or more people) should be held using remote technology or postponed, if not essential. Large gatherings would include events with large numbers of people from multiple households such as conferences or meetings, sporting events, and concerts.

Wearing masks, washing hands often, maintaining social distance wherever possible, and getting staff and students vaccinated all remain important safety measures. All prevention strategies provide some level of protection, and layered strategies implemented at the same time provide the greatest level of protection.

The spike in COVID spread has also pushed several Michigan colleges to begin the upcoming semester virtually in an effort to curb growing infection rates.

5 data points that show Michigan’s COVID-19 position heading into 2022

The Michigan COVID-19 landscape heading into 2022 is perhaps murkier than it was heading into 2021.

Last year, we knew vaccines would be rolled out to the masses by spring, and most of us assumed we’d be putting the COVID-19 pandemic behind us by the fall, or at least by the end of 2021. As Lee Corso would say, not so fast.

Related: Virus mutations and variants like omicron: How and why they mutate

The delta variant in the summer and fall, and now the omicron variant, have thrown some curve balls at the world’s pandemic plans, and now COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing around the globe, with Michigan setting a new daily case record in the state’s final data release of the year on Wednesday.

Of course, not every COVID-19 surge is the same, and not every country is the same. In the U.S., vaccines plus booster shots can provide a high level of protection against severe illness and death with the omicron variant, and early data shows omicron may be less severe than previous variants, despite spreading faster. But we need more data on all of that.

We also have new treatments rolling out, including a pill from Pfizer that treats the most serious symptoms of COVID-19, especially in higher risk patients, on top of existing treatments like monoclonal antibodies.

Still, the sheer volume of cases we’re likely to see to start 2022 could be enough to overwhelm some of our health care systems, which are already near a breaking point.

Here are five data points that show where the COVID-19 pandemic is in Michigan heading into 2022.

Cases are on the rise again after a short plateau

Before Wednesday’s record-breaking data on new cases, the 7-day moving daily case average was dropping, for the most part.

The 7-day average had dipped from about 7,200 down to 5,400. But that was before omicron became widespread, and before the Christmas holiday. Now, the 7-day average is at its highest point, again, around 8,400.

The CDC currently lists every county and state in the U.S. as experiencing a high spread of the virus, and encourages indoor masking regardless of vaccination status.

The highest case rates in Michigan, according to MDHHS analysis through Dec. 28, are among the 20-29, and 30-39 age groups. The lowest is among the 70 and older age group, which also happen to be the highest vaccinated group.

Worth noting here that with the explosion of at-home testing, cases could presumably be even higher as many positive tests go unreported to health departments.

Unvaccinated driving large majority of hospitalizations

If you look at any specific hospital in the state, you’ll find that a big majority of patients, especially those in critical care or on a ventilator, are unvaccinated, or are vaccinated with underlying health conditions.

According to MDHHS analysis, approximately 2.0% of people who were fully vaccinated have been reported with a breakthrough infection. About 15% of total cases reported have been among vaccinated patients, through Dec. 3.

Unvaccinated people in Michigan had 4.3 times the risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and 13.2 times the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to fully vaccinated persons; and the risk of infection and death is lower for those who receive a booster dose.

Michigan Age-Standardized Rates of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths by Vaccination Status (MDHHS)

Hospitalizations and ER visits on the rise again

After a couple of weeks of decreases in both of these key categories, the trend has shifted once again to end the year.

Total COVID-19 hospitalizations, statewide, since peaking in mid-December, dropped down to below 4,000 last week. Wednesday’s update was the first increase in patients since Dec. 13. But another key indicator is how many symptomatic people are showing up to emergency departments.

Wednesday’s snapshot showed about 3,000 at ERs with COVID-19 symptoms, the highest we’ve ever recorded.

Michigan hospital data as of Dec. 30, 2021. (WDIV)

MDHHS analysis found hospital admissions for most older age groups are decreasing over the past week, but younger ages are increasing. The largest one-week increases were among those in the 20-29 group.

Hospital Admissions and Admission Rates by Age Group (Dec. 28) (WDIV)

And regionally in Michigan, while most regions remain at lower levels of COVID+ hospital census compared to last week, several regions show increasing trends over the past few days, MDHHS said. Overall, the census of COVID+ patients in ICUs has decreased 12% from last week.

Deaths near pandemic highs for most age groups

MDHHS analysis found COVID-19 death rates for all age groups, except 20–29-year-olds, are now higher than the death rates during the Alpha (B.1.1.7) wave and nearly all younger age groups (<60) are experiencing pandemic high death rates.

Through Dec. 20, the 7-day avg. death rate is more than 70 daily deaths per million people for those over the age of 80. The proportion of deaths among those over 60 is steady over the last 30 days.

MDHHS analysis found out of about 10,200 deaths reported in 2021, 85.5% were among those who were not fully vaccinated.

Average and total new deaths by age group. (MDHHS)
Average and total new deaths by age group. (MDHHS)

Michigan lags behind in vaccinations

As of Dec. 29, 63.4% of Michigan’s population had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is 35th in the U.S. for states. About 57% are fully vaccinated.

About 20% of the 5-11 age group has at least one dose, About 45% of the 12-29 age group has at least one dose, and about 51% of the 16-19 age group has at least one dose. All three of those numbers are below the national average.

As of Dec. 28, about 2.2 million booster doses have been administered in Michigan, with the highest booster rates among the 50-64 age group.

Read: Complete Michigan COVID coverage

About the Authors:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.