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COVID uptick possible, but maybe not a surge

Courtesy Image An illustration of the coronavirus provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

ALPENA — Coronavirus infections may spike as kids return to school and people spend more time indoors amid cooler weather, a public health official said, but officials do not expect to see the type of massive and deadly surge seen in earlier periods of the pandemic.

That prediction comes as new coronavirus infections tick upward in Northeast Michigan while vaccination rates have all but flatlined.

However, “with the large level of immunity from vaccines as well as past infections, the overall risk of serious illness and hospitalization rates have decreased greatly,” Dr. Joshua Meyerson, medical director at District Health Department No. 4, said in an email to The News. “We also have medications such as Paxlovid to treat people who do become sick with Covid that reduces the risk of hospitalization further.”

Meyerson pointed to this week’s U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization of a new coronavirus vaccine booster that specifically targets later variants of the virus as another tool to help keep people healthy. That booster could start going into arms as early as next week.

“Unfortunately,” Meyerson added, “with continued disease activity there are still some who become seriously ill from Covid, especially those at advanced age, with underlying risk factors, and (those who) are unvaccinated.”

A sizable minority of Northeast Michigan residents remain unvaccinated as inoculation rates stagnate.

The share of residents across Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, and Alcona counties who’ve completed their first round of vaccinations has climbed less than 1 percentage point since the start of the year, standing at about 58% as of Wednesday, according to state data.

The share of residents who’ve received a booster dose of the vaccine stood at 37%, barely up a percentage point since the state started reporting booster figures this spring.

“We continue to promote Covid-19 vaccines as the most effective way to reduce your risk of serious illness,” Meyerson said.

Even with low vaccination rates — public health officials originally set somewhere between 70% and 80% inoculation as the target — the virus seems less severe than in earlier stages.

District Health Departments No. 4 and No. 2, the public health agencies serving Northeast Michigan, in August reported 212 new COVID-19 infections across Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, and Alcona counties, compared to 90 infections across those counties in July.

Still, August 2022 infections were down 40% from the 354 infections reported in August 2021.

In the first eight months of 2022, officials reported the deaths of 69 Northeast Michiganders who had been infected with COVID-19, down about 21% from the 87 deaths reported in the first eight months of 2021.

Cooler-weather months, when people typically spend more time indoors in closer contact with others, have been more dangerous in the pandemic.

Last year, for example, infections jumped from 354 in August to 525 in September to 1,020 in October.

Thus far in 2022, 68% of all new infections — and 55% of all deaths — were reported in the first three months of the year, when snow remained on the ground.

Still, public health officials don’t expect this year’s uptick to reach the levels seen in previous years.

“Covid activity remains elevated with continued transmission in the community,” Meyerson said in the email to The News. “There is concern that activity may increase in the Fall as is common with many respiratory viruses, although it is not felt that we will have surges nearly as large as last year.”

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, District Health Departments No. 4 and No. 2 have recorded 12,062 infections across Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, and Alcona counties and the deaths of 308 Northeast Michiganders who had been infected with the coronavirus.

Those infection counts would not include infections detected in home tests not reported to the health departments.

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