Virus less deadly, but caution still urged

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Shoppers mask up as they visit the Alpena Mall on Thursday.

ALPENA — Northeast Michigan has not seen a coronavirus-related death in a little over eight weeks and hardly anyone in the region is hospitalized with COVID-19, but public health officials said residents still should keep their guard up.

“I think we’re still going to have people who die from COVID, because it’s still here, it’s still around,” said Chuck Sherwin, president of MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, referring to the disease caused by coronavirus infection. “But I think we’re learning to manage it differently.”

The last resident of Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, or Alcona counties to die after being infected with the coronavirus was reported on Aug. 20. The area has averaged fewer than seven new cases a week since mid-September, a far cry from the average nearly 30 cases a week seen in April.

As of Thursday, only 15 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across the entire 18-county health care region that includes Alpena, Presque Isle, and Montmorency counties, according to state data. Alcona County is grouped into a region that includes the populous Saginaw County; 153 people are hospitalized across that 13-county region.

No coronavirus patients are at the Alpena hospital.

But Josh Meyerson, medical director for District Health Department No. 4, said Northeast Michigan isn’t out of the woods, yet. If cases increase, there’s more community transmission, meaning a greater chance of high-risk people becoming infected.

Several states are reporting record numbers of new cases, and national health officials warn of a tough winter.

Northeast Michigan health care officials say COVID-19 hasn’t been as deadly recently because younger people, who are less likely to have severe complications from the virus, have been more likely to get infected recently.

And doctors know more about how to contain and treat the disease.

Meyerson said a lot of the early deaths were related to cases at long-term care facilities or nursing homes. A majority of the Northeast Michiganders infected since the virus hit Michigan in mid-March are linked to MediLodge of Alpena.

Meyerson said a lot of work was done to help contain nursing home cases and state requirements to routinely test long-term care facility workers for COVID-19 “seems to be working.

“We have managed to keep older people from getting as sick as much, compared to April and May,” he said.

During those months, 61 residents and 31 employees of MediLodge of Alpena were infected. Nine of those residents died after being infected.

One resident and one employee of MediLodge of Rogers City were infected earlier this year but have since recovered. Five staff members of Lincoln Haven in Lincoln were infected, but no new cases have been tied to that facility since September.

Sherwin, the Alpena hospital president, said most infected people are not admitted to a hospital.

He said a total of 16 patients have been treated at the Alpena hospital since the pandemic began, but he declined to say how many patients had died there, citing health care privacy laws.

Meyerson also credited lower death rates to advancements in how patients are treated. He said medications such as dexamethasone, a steroid, and antivirals have had the greatest effect on mortality.

“I think our doctors are better at caring for patients with COVID, as we have learned more about the best way to manage their illness — from an intensive care standpoint, as well as the use of different medications,” he said.

Sherwin said Northeast Michigan has done “a really nice job” of maintaining social distancing. He said the places that needed to close closed, businesses modified how they worked, and people are masking and practicing hand hygiene.

Sherwin said he thinks Northeast Michigan residents are getting more used to wearing masks and doing the things necessary to slow the spread of the disease.


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