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COVID numbers keep rising in greater Copper Country

HANCOCK — Ontonagon County tops the state in both the rate of new cases and in the percentage of tests coming back positive, while Baraga County is in the top five for both categories.

State data show Ontonagon County with a seven-day average of 35% positive tests, based on an average of 49 tests. Its seven-day average for new cases is 1,244.7 per million, down from a peak of 1555.9 four days earlier.

Baraga County had the fourth-highest percentage of test results, at 17.6%, based on an average of 34 cases per day. It also had the third-highest average of new cases, at 974.

The Copper Country is seeing general community spread, with no particular setting or activity to which the increase can be attributed, said Kate Beer, health officer for the WUPHD.

“Once it starts, it’s very hard to control,” she said. “That’s why up front we have always tried to promote the mitigation procedures that we have, which would be the physical distancing, washing of hands and mask-wearing.”

The five-county area covered by the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department added 279 positive and probable cases between Monday and Thursday, the WUPHD announced Thursday.

As of Thursday, the WUPHD was following 436 active cases across the district — up from 159 a month ago.

Earlier this week, the WUPHD announced it would be prioritizing case investigation based on those most vulnerable and most susceptible to the virus. The priorities are notifying seniors, particularly with underlying conditions); children, especially those attending school in-person; people living in congregate living environments; then all others, as capacity allows.

That could change if conditions improve, Beer said.

“As case levels change, so will our response,” she said. “The prioritization has come about because of the surge that we are seeing. That limits our capabilities at this point.”

If people test positive for COVID-19, they are encouraged to reach out on their own to close contacts.

While the department is trying to notify or speak to all positive cases, a growing number are not returning the calls, Beer said. The process has been to make a call, make another if the first try is unsuccessful, then send a certified letter as a last resort.

“The new process will be maybe to call once and leave a certified letter,” Beer said.

As Michigan recorded a new high in daily COVID-19 cases Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she is “strongly considering all actions” in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus during a news conference. Over the past five weeks, COVID hospitalizations in the state have gone up 500%.

“This is the moment that our medical experts have been warning us about and dreading since the start of this pandemic,” she said. “Our case numbers are skyrocketing here in Michigan,” she said. “Right now, the curve that we had flattened… is a straight line, and it is straight up.”

The seven-day average for deaths in the state is 35, said Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive. That number is seven times what the state saw in June.

Whitmer warned that rising case levels were forcing hospitals to move through their stockpiles of personal protective equipment, and that higher rates of community spread could mean fewer staff available to treat rising caseloads.

At this point, Beer said, local hospitals still appear to have surge capacity.

“We’re still encouraging people that if they do need medical care right now, even particularly for non-COVID items to make sure that they seek that medical attention,” she said.

Across the Upper Peninsula, 50 out of 79 ICU beds were occupied as of Thursday, and 45 of 58 adult ICU beds. About 61% of patients in an ICU bed in the Upper Peninsula are there with COVID, UP Health-Marquette CEO Gar Atchison said during a press conference with other Michigan hospital leaders Thursday.

“We are the safety net hospital for the Upper Peninsula, so it is a concern of us, when we hit capacity and Region 6 and downstate are full, what’s going to happen then,” he said.

Unlike the spring, where hard-hit areas like Detroit were able to tap medical resources from other parts of the state and country, virtually all the country is being stretched by the crisis, hospital leaders said.

Over the past 10 days, UP Health-Marquette has had to move off some cases for lack of ICU capacity, Atchison said.

Atchison hopes to avoid the hospital restricting non-COVID procedures, citing the health consequences of people postponing visits in the spring.

“By the time they did present with a (gastrointestinal) bleed, it wasn’t an early stage,” he said. “They were coming in in far worse shape than we had ever seen before. So, shutting down does have consequences to public health that I think we all agree we’d like to avoid.”

As of Thursday, Aspirus had 12 COVID patients and eight in the ICU across all Michigan facilities, for a 39.6% bed occupancy. Baraga County Memorial Hospital had one COVID patient, not in the ICU, with 26.7% occupancy. UP Health had 35 COVID patients and 12 in the ICU, with an occupancy of 68.4%.

With the approach of the opening day of deer season and Thanksgiving, traditional times for socialization coming, Whitmer and Khaldun offered suggestions on how to stay safe.

Instead of combining multiple households around a table, Whitmer suggested a Zoom call with relatives.

Beer also encouraged people to keep their gatherings small, and involving only one household.

“This is a bad time of year where most of us are inside all the time anyway,” she said. “So the spread of the virus is going to get worse before it gets better here.”

Earlier this week, Pfizer announced early trials of its COVID-19 vaccine showed it was 90% effective. Though any potential vaccine is still months away, the WUPHD is working with the state on the logistics of distribution, Beer said.

“The vaccine has to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures for Pfizer, so that makes it a little bit more difficult to distribute,” she said. “Going forward, we hope to determine hat those plans will be.”

Beer said the WUPHD is also working on setting up mass vaccinations for the flu in the near future.

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