I have written several blogs about the latest surge in Michigan because I think it is a microcosm of the adverse public health management nationwide during the pandemic. Michigan had done a remarkable job of social distancing and implementing actions to protect the population in the first year of the pandemic. This was primarily in response to the outbreak in Detroit and southeastern Michigan early on in the March-April 2020 timeframe.
After that initial outbreak, the limitations on movement, social activity, and restaurants were among the most restrictive in the country with significant detrimental economic effects (including the highest unemployment rate in the country). Most businesses were closed completely, with only food stores open but having marked limits on the number of patrons. Hardware stores were limited to selling necessities, while most restaurants were closed for months. Even golf and other outside activities were prohibited. These measures effectively kept the population from becoming infected, as much of the population avoided exposure to SARS-CoV-2. The Michigan population therefore was truly naive to the infection as compared to much of the rest of the country.
When Governor Whitmer announced that restrictions would be aggressively eased in mid-February of 2021, the state was still early in the implementation of its vaccine campaign. It had restricted vaccines to those over 65 years old and health care workers. There also was a confusing, poorly accessible system for individuals to sign up for vaccines that were mainly available to local public health facilities. Most health care organizations and hospital chains had little vaccine on hand. This meant that almost no one under the age of 65 in the state had been vaccinated.
Soon after social distancing restrictions were eased, infections in the state of Michigan exploded. Michigan had the highest rates of infection in the country and therefore a significant increase in hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. The fact that those who were infected were almost exclusively, non-vaccinated individuals under 65 years old raised the question that if the government had waited until the entire population had had a higher level of immunization, could the surge have been prevented? Here is further data to support that hypothesis.
Data (shown above) from Israel clearly shows that transmission of COVID-19 decreases drastically once approximately 40-50% of the population is immunized. The figure shows that despite social distancing being lifted in Israel when 50% of the population was immunized, there was no increase in infections. In fact, COVID-19 infections continue to drop dramatically despite the absence of social restrictions.
Tom Finholt, dean of the School of Information at UM, generated a similar diagram of infections vs. vaccination rate in Michigan over the past six months. His curve is below.
New cases exploded after social restrictions were lifted from early February to mid-April. At this point in April about 40% of the Michigan population had at least one dose of the vaccine. Since that time new cases dropped dramatically despite no increase in social restrictions. This data totally parallels what was observed in Israel.
This analysis suggests if Governor Whitmer had waited six more weeks to release social restrictions, vaccinations would have reached a critical point that afforded protection to the majority of the population, and the surge would never have happened. Instead, much of the benefit from the incredible sacrifices made by the state’s residents has been wasted by one bad decision.
It isn’t clear why the governor released social restrictions in mid-February, and this has been the subject of much partisan debate. Only she knows for sure, and the Governor has not provided an explanation. Regardless of the reason, many lives were lost, and young people with increased susceptibility to COVID-19 paid a horrible price for this very bad decision.