Share on Pinterest
Vaccination rates and cold weather have helped fuel Michigan’s current COVID-19 surge. Emily Elconin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Michigan is dealing with its fourth, and potentially most serious, COVID-19 surge.
  • The state leads the nation in per capita cases as well as in hospitalizations.
  • Experts say a mixture of cold weather, vaccination rates, and politics are among the factors.
  • There are now concerns that the Omicron variant could make things even more serious.

Michigan is experiencing a significant COVID-19 surge, leading the nation in per capita case rates and setting records for hospitalizations.

The surge is the Wolverine State’s fourth since the beginning of the pandemic and is looking to perhaps be its worst.

“This has far surpassed anything we’ve seen before, both in how long it’s been going on and now its seemingly never-ending peak,” Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, which operates 14 hospitals, told ABC News. “We just don’t know when the end will be, and we’re very worried it will have a very long tail.”

The state is currently seeing a daily average of 440 hospitalizations per 1 million people, a pandemic record up from the previous mark of 420 per million, according to Michigan’s Safe Start Map COVID-19 dashboard.

The state has a 55 percent full vaccination rate, solidly in the middle of the pack among states but below the national rate of 60 percent.

So why, then, is Michigan experiencing the most serious surge in the country?

“Probably the biggest issue is that we still have a big portion of the population that’s unvaccinated, and coupling that with the fact that it gets cold here quickly, I think you kind of have a perfect storm,” Grace Noppert, PhD, MPH, a social epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, told Healthline. “So you can’t go outside anymore and with the holidays here, people are gathering inside and not rapid testing.”

“I just think it’s a perfect storm of events happening, and then add on top of that an extraordinary amount of pandemic fatigue,” she added.

Another factor is the general unevenness of this pandemic. Different states have experienced surges at different times and different rates.

However, Noppert says that with highly effective vaccines available, the nature of the pandemic’s death toll has shifted to reflect deep political polarization and the rural-urban divide.

“We have preliminary work that we’re doing on this, but the politicization of COVID has changed the distribution of the surges as time gone has gone,” she explained. “Before there was a vaccine — this kind of life-saving treatment — you didn’t see this huge difference between ‘red’ counties and ‘blue’ counties that you see now.”

Recent research has shown that people who are unvaccinated are three times more likely to lean Republican than Democrat and that people living in counties that voted for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election are now three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those that went for President Joe Biden.

Ultimately, Noppert said, it’s hard to pin down.

“There are so many different dynamics depending on what the partisanship of the state is versus the partisanship of the county,” she explained. “The way that that plays out is very much dependent on that context. And so I guess the bottom line here is that context really matters in this case for both the virus distribution and vaccinations and that there isn’t one story.”

With the potentially even more transmissible Omicron variant starting to show up across the United States, these dynamics could spell trouble for control over the pandemic, both in Michigan and across the country.

“This [current surge] reflects the contagiousness of the Delta variant,” Dr. Jan Carney, MPH, a professor of medicine and associate dean for public health at University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, told Healthline. “Even in states with very high vaccination rates, not everyone is vaccinated or not yet boosted at a time when a contagious variant is circulating widely in the U.S. and early vaccination immunity may be waning.”

Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the chief executive officer of University Hospital in New Jersey and the former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, agreed.

“The Delta variant is the primary driver of surges in places like Michigan and upstate New York. We are still dealing with that variant, which is using unvaccinated people as superspreaders,” Elnahal told Healthline.

But the jury is still very out regarding Omicron.

“It does appear that Omicron may be less severe, at least based on initial, anecdotal reports,” said Elnahal.

In the meantime, he said, get vaccinated. And if you have had a vaccination, get boosted when you’re eligible.

“They are much more likely to protect you better than otherwise,” Elnahal said.