Virus spread still rampant in most states to start 2021, data shows

Coronavirus conditions improving, but still poor across US

A screenshot of Covid Act Now's map of the U.S. with states color-coded according to their "Covid Risk Level." Michigan is labeled as experiencing an "active or imminent" COVID outbreak, along with most other states, according to data from Covid Act Now. Photo courtesy of Covid Act Now's website. -- Dec. 31, 2020 (Covid Act Now)

Though the dreadful year that brought unforeseen devastation is finally coming to an end, coronavirus spread is still rampant throughout the United States as we enter the new year, according to the latest data.

Coronavirus conditions have improved across the country between November and December, but conditions are still considerably poor as of Dec. 31.

According to research group Covid Act Now, most states are experiencing an “active or imminent outbreak,” while others are still experiencing “severe” COVID outbreaks. One month ago, on Nov. 28, half of the country was experiencing severe virus outbreaks -- which the group identified was the nation’s “third wave” of the virus (and they say it’s currently still ongoing).

For months, we’ve been following data from Covid Act Now -- a group of technologists, epidemiologists, health experts and public policy leaders that monitors and identifies each state’s risk level for a COVID-19 outbreak. Since the summertime, the group used four risk level categories to identify virus spread in the U.S.: “low,” “medium,” “high” and “critical.” But, with a massive virus surge plaguing the nation in November, the group had to create a higher risk level: severe.

As of Dec. 31, only four states -- California, Arizona, Tennessee and Rhode Island -- are labeled as experiencing severe virus outbreaks.

Most of the country -- 42 states, to be exact -- are colored crimson, meaning they are identified as experiencing active or imminent outbreaks, which is considered the critical risk level. Michigan is among those critical states.

Oregon, Vermont and Washington are the only three states “at risk of an outbreak,” which is considered the high risk level. Hawaii is the only state experiencing “slow disease growth,” a medium risk level, as of Dec. 31.

There are currently no states labeled at low risk for a coronavirus outbreak by the group.

Like most other states, Michigan’s risk for coronavirus spread has constantly shifted throughout the year due to fluctuating rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, contact tracing and more.

Throughout October and November, the state’s risk level consistently trended in an adverse direction as the virus spread more rapidly than in previous months. Michigan was considered to be experiencing a severe outbreak briefly in December, but has been consistently labeled critical since the end of October, according to the group.

While a number of key factors contribute to a state’s risk level for a COVID-19 outbreak, most critical states -- including Michigan -- are specifically struggling with a “dangerous” number of daily new virus cases.

Daily new COVID cases in Michigan, US

One of the key factors contributing to Michigan’s critical risk status -- and potentially the most significant -- is the number of new COVID-19 cases recorded each day per every 100,000 residents in the state.

As of Dec. 31, Covid Act Now reports that Michigan is seeing a “critical” average of 27.4 new COVID cases every day per every 100,000 people -- a significant decrease from 70.8 on Nov. 28, but still considered “dangerous” by the group. According to the data, Michigan’s highest average on record was 83 new cases per every 100,000 people on Dec. 3, which the group considers “extreme.”

Any number higher than 1 is considered “medium” and anything above 10 is considered “high.” A state has reached “critical” standing if it reports more than 25 daily new cases per every 100,000 residents, according to the group.

Michigan was reporting a “high” rate of 11.7 new confirmed COVID cases per day for every 100,000 residents on October 11. Over the summer, Michigan reported a “medium” rate of 7.1 daily new cases on August 26 and 7.3 on July 31.

Over the last week, Michigan has averaged 2,737 new confirmed cases per day (27.4 for every 100,000 residents). If this trend continued for the next year, this would translate to approximately 1,000,000 cases and an estimated 5,000,000 infections (50% of the population). -- Dec. 31, 2020 (Covid Act Now)

The group’s data aligns with coronavirus case and death data reported by the state of Michigan.

Michigan is finally experiencing a decline in the rate of growth of new COVID-19 cases in December after experiencing its largest spike in COVID-19 cases on record throughout November. During that time, the state consistently broke record after record for single-day increases in new COVID-19 cases. So far, the highest daily total of new COVID cases in Michigan was 9,799 on Nov. 20.

Most of the other 41 states labeled at a critical risk are also experiencing “dangerous” daily increases in COVID cases -- though much higher than Michigan. For example, Texas is reporting an average of 50.4 new COVID cases per every 100,000 residents each day; Georgia is reporting 61.1; Arkansas is reporting 68.8. and Massachusetts is reporting 66.2.

A screenshot of Covid Act Now's map of the U.S. with states color-coded according to their "Covid Risk Level." Michigan is labeled as experiencing an "active or imminent" COVID outbreak, along with most other states, according to data from Covid Act Now. Photo courtesy of Covid Act Now's website. -- Dec. 31, 2020 (Covid Act Now)

Contact tracing still low in Michigan

As COVID cases rise in Michigan, the amount of contact tracing conducted has significantly dropped off. Contact tracing in Michigan has been steadily decreasing since June, and has dropped sharply between mid-September and the end of October.

The state’s contact tracing has improved from 3 percent at the end of November to 7 percent as of Dec. 31 -- but this number is still considered significantly low.

Contact tracing is cited by experts as a key factor in containing COVID-19. Experts recommend that at least 90 percent of new COVID-19 cases are traced within 48 hours to contain the virus.

“With 2,737 new daily cases on average, Michigan needs an estimated 13,685 contact tracers on staff to trace each new case to a known case within 48 hours of detection,” the report reads. “Per our best available data, Michigan has 1,000 contact tracers, fulfilling only 7 percent of this staffing requirement. With insufficient contact tracing staff, Michigan is unlikely to be able to successfully identify and isolate sources of disease spread fast enough to prevent new outbreaks.”

When a state’s contact tracing falls below 20 percent it is considered “low,” and when it falls below 7 percent it is considered “critical,” according to the research. Between 10 and 90 percent is considered “medium.”

Michigan’s positive COVID test rate

COVID-19 testing has slowed in Michigan during the holiday, with more than 35,000 diagnostic tests reported per day. The positive test rate has decreased to near 8 percent over the last week, according to the state’s data.

Covid Act Now is reporting a similar number for Michigan: 8.2 percent of COVID tests were positive as of Dec. 31, according to the group.

“A significant percentage (8.2 percent) of COVID tests were positive, meaning that Michigan’s testing meets WHO minimums but needs to be further expanded to detect most new cases,” the report reads. “Identifying and isolating new cases can help contain COVID without resorting to lockdowns.”

According to the group, the “World Health Organization recommends a positive test rate of less than 10 percent. The countries most successful in containing COVID have rates of 3 percent or less.”

Related: Michigan health officials want COVID tests positivity rate to fall below 3%

Virus hospitalizations decrease in Michigan, but still high

Yet another worsening factor contributing to Michigan’s critical risk status is the rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the last few months, including upticks in critical care and ventilator use. Hospitalizations have slowly begun to decrease in the state but remain relatively high.

Covid Act Now claims that, based on these trends, Michigan’s healthcare systems are likely able to “absorb a wave of new COVID infections.” The group determines this risk level by identifying how many intensive care unit (ICU) beds are available in the state, and how many may be needed based on the state’s level of coronavirus spread.

The group says, as of Dec. 31, about 74 percent of Michigan’s available ICU beds are currently in use by patients with and without COVID-19 diagnoses.

“Michigan has reported having 2,667 staffed adult ICU beds. 1,337 are filled by non-COVID patients and 649 are filled by COVID patients. Overall, 1,986 out of 2,667 (74%) are filled. This suggests some ability to absorb an increase in COVID cases.,” the report reads.

Click here for more data on COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan.

COVID-19 by US county

Covid Act Now also breaks data down at the county level, assigning a coronavirus risk level for nearly every county in each state. The research group has done this for months, but it now features the option of viewing all U.S. counties on a map at one time (see the image below).

A screenshot of Covid Act Now's map of all U.S. counties color-coded according to their "Covid Risk Level." Michigan is labeled as experiencing an "active or imminent" COVID outbreak, like much of the country, according to data from Covid Act Now. Photo courtesy of Covid Act Now's website. -- Dec. 31, 2020. (Covid Act Now)

Though most U.S. counties are also labeled at a critical risk level, a number of counties throughout the country -- specifically out west -- are labeled at lesser risk levels.

Most Michigan counties, in both the upper and lower peninsulas, are either labeled at high or critical risk levels for a COVID outbreak, according to the data. Only one Michigan county, Ontonagon, is labeled yellow, which is a medium risk level.

A map of Michigan counties and their assigned COVID-19 risk levels from research led by Covid Act Now. Risk levels have been assigned to all Michigan counties by the group. Photo courtesy of Covid Act Now's website. -- Dec. 31, 2020 (Covid Act Now)

Pace of US COVID vaccinations moving slower than expected

Though the coronavirus continues to spread at alarming rates across the country, we are at least entering the new year with a valuable weapon against it: vaccines.

Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized for widespread use in the U.S. in December, and doses of both are starting to be given to Americans who are at high risk or work on the front lines.

As of Dec. 28, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had reports of more than 2.1 million vaccinations out of 11.4 million doses shipped across the country -- though that count is outdated and it can take days for reports from vaccine providers to trickle in and get added to the site.

Michigan has so far received 278,000 doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, but as of Dec. 29, only 71,000 doses have been administered.

Officials say the race to vaccinate millions of Americans is off to a slower, messier start than leaders of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed had expected.

Overworked, underfunded state public health departments are scrambling to patch together plans for administering vaccines. Differences in how counties and hospitals administer the vaccine are leading to long lines, confusion and jammed phone lines. Experts say the federal government hasn’t done enough to help states meet their goals for getting doses injected into arms.

Michigan’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun shared a similar message this week, saying the lag in vaccinations is due to two factors: operational challenges and hospital systems opting to ease into the process slowly.

“There’s no question this is the most massive vaccination effort that we’ve undertaken in this country,” Khaldun said. “I think the operational challenges of it means it is moving slower than anybody actually wants it to.”

More: COVID-19 vaccination effort to ramp up across Michigan

Public health experts say more vaccine options, in addition to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, are critical to amassing enough shots for the country and the world.

A huge U.S. study of another COVID-19 vaccine, made by Novavax Inc., got underway on Dec. 28. The vaccine candidate is the fifth to reach final-stage testing in the United States. Some 30,000 volunteers are needed to prove if the shot -- a different kind than its Pfizer and Moderna competitors -- really works and is safe.

“If you want to have enough vaccine to vaccinate all the people in the U.S. who you’d like to vaccinate — up to 85 percent or more of the population — you’re going to need more than two companies,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, told The Associated Press on Monday, Dec. 28.

Read more: More COVID-19 vaccines in the pipeline as US effort ramps up

All of us at Local 4 and ClickOnDetroit are wishing you a safe and happy New Year!

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About the Author:

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