CLEVELAND — Michigan is a national COVID-19 hotspot. Ohio is not. What’s made the difference?
A spike in cases among Michigan schoolchildren, and the increased spread of highly transmissible COVID-19 variants across the Wolverine state are major contributing factors, health experts say.
But Ohio shouldn’t get complacent.
Surges like the one currently happening in Michigan are a distinct possibility elsewhere because of the spread of the coronavirus variant first seen in the United Kingdom, increased travel and relaxing of social distancing mandates, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
“I look at Michigan as a cautionary tale,” said Dr. Amy Edwards, pediatric infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals. If Ohio can accelerate its vaccine rollout, “we could dodge the worst of it for sure,” Edwards said.
Michigan is among the worst hotspots in the nation. Nearly half of new COVID-19 infections nationwide are in five states, including Michigan, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In contrast, Ohio’s COVID-19 indicators are encouraging. The 21-day trend for deaths has dropped, and is leveling off for number of cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Gov. Mike DeWine has said spring and summer events such as proms, graduations and county fairs could return if people follow social-distancing and masking rules. Sports and banquet venues will be allowed to reopen this spring with limited capacity and other coronavirus-related restrictions.
When asked at a Wednesday briefing if Michigan should consider another shutdown of restaurants and businesses, health officials said their focus remains on expanding vaccination as widely as possible, and monitoring virus transmission among school-age children.
“We’re doing everything we can to try and increase the percentage of cases that are investigated. But this is a very large volume to try and keep up with,” said Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health.
Here’s a look at some of the factors that have changed the pandemic’s course in Ohio versus Michigan:
Spread among school-age kids
Outbreaks in Michigan schools have increased, driven by transmission in indoor team sports, especially basketball, hockey and wrestling.
“Our rates for children (age) zero to nine and 10 to 19 are at an all-time high, and have more than quadrupled from a month ago,” Lyon-Callo said.
In February, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer removed restrictions that had been preventing winter school sports from moving forward with their seasons.
Protocols requiring rapid coronavirus testing for all youth athletes were recently implemented, and the use of masks during play is encouraged, the health department said.
In Ohio, the number of COVID-19 cases in schools is low, and children under 18 currently make up 1% of the COVID-19 cases in Ohio, according to ODH.
Variants hit Michigan
The sharp rise in COVID-19 cases throughout Michigan could be connected to increased spread of coronavirus variants. More than 1,800 cases have been confirmed as infected with the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, Michigan health officials said.
Michigan has the second-largest number of variant cases in the United States, according to the CDC. The state has now identified as many as five variants of the coronavirus, with the B.1.1.7 variant as the most widespread.
More than 300 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been found in Ohio, the CDC said. It is now the dominant strain circulating in this country. Studies have suggested that the variant is more transmissible and likely more deadly, but is not resistant to vaccines.
By most metrics, Ohio’s vaccine rollout is going faster than Michigan’s.
Among the 20 most populous states, Ohio (No. 7) ranks higher than Michigan (No. 10) for total doses delivered.
But Michigan (No. 8) is slightly ahead of Ohio (No. 10) for percentage of population fully vaccinated, according to numbers supplied by Michigan health officials.
Ohio extended vaccines to those 16 and up in mid-March, while Michigan teens and older just became eligible for the vaccine on April 5.
Michigan’s vaccine rollout has gone well, although there is room for improvement, said Joshua Petrie, research investigator at University of Michigan School of Public Health. “There’s been limited supplies, but I think that people have been getting it,” he said.
In March, Michigan lifted some pandemic restrictions, allowing restaurants and bars to fill up to 50% capacity, with a maximum of 100 people, according to the state. Since Feb. 1, restaurants had been capped at 25% capacity.
The fact that it’s easier for people to mingle may be contributing to Michigan’s case spike, Petrie said.
“If I had to boil it down to one driver is probably that that people are just out and about and coming into contact with each other more,” Petrie said.
Michigan strives to flatten the curve
If Michiganders move activities outdoors, get vaccinated, get tested and isolate if they test positive for COVID-19 so they don’t infect others, they can stop the outbreak, Lyon-Callo said.
“Now, with COVID I guess I should learn not to say things like this in public, because we don’t know what the virus will do,” Lyon-Callo said. “However, based on what I understand now about how the virus works and how the vaccine is working and how well the vaccine campaign is going. I’m very optimistic for the summer.”