As Michigan hospitals face a worsening spread of the coronavirus fueled by the delta variant, state and country concerns are growing over omicron, another mutation of the virus first identified in southern Michigan. Africa and now spreading all over the world.
“Sooner or later we will see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” President Joe Biden said in a speech to the nation on Monday. “We will have to face this new threat, just as we have faced those who have come before it.”
He and Governor Gretchen Whitmer both stressed that vaccination is key to protecting lives — regardless of the type of variant circulating.
“These vaccines are still quite resistant to all the variants that have come and gone, but viruses mutate,” Whitmer said after a Monday morning meeting in Taylor about the global semiconductor shortage.
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“The nature of this virus is changing, right? And so I can’t tell you what six months from now will look like. I can tell you that the more people get vaccinated, the better the outlook.”
Scientists still don’t know many important details about the omicron variant, how contagious it is, and whether it causes more serious illness. It is also unclear how well current vaccines will protect people from hospitalization and death from the strain of omicron.
“We’re learning more about this new variant every day,” Biden said. “And as we learn more, we will share that information candidly and promptly with the American people.”
After reanalyzing the genetic sequence data from 31,000 positive coronavirus test samples sequenced at the State Bureau of Laboratories, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported Monday that the omicron variant has not been detected in the state.
Cases of the variant have been identified in neighboring Canada.
“It’s still early days and there’s a lot we need to learn about the Omicron variant,” said Dr. Alexis Travis, senior deputy director of MDHHS’s Public Health Administration, said in a statement.
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Omicron could strike as Michigan remains in the throes of what appears to be the state’s worst pandemic wave yet, and as hospitals continue to be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and those with other illnesses.
“At the worst, if we get a lot more cases of COVID because of omicron and we have flu outbreaks at the same time, that could really boost our capacity and test our ability to care for patients,” said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection prevention for Henry Ford Health System.
More than 4,200 patients were hospitalized Monday in Michigan with confirmed cases of COVID-19. Among them were 48 children. According to state data, about 84% of the state’s 3,114 intensive care beds were full.
Nine Michigan hospitals were at 100% capacity on Monday, and another 20 reported being 90% or more full.
Munson Healthcare operates on a “pandemic red status” giving COVID-19 patients the highest priority, while deferring non-emergency procedures and surgeries “on a case-by-case basis to move staff and resources to where they are most needed. “
Spectrum Health reached a record number of patients in its hospitals last week and was unable to accept patients who need to be transferred from smaller, regional hospitals for a higher level of care.
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Detroit-based Henry Ford has cut back on some elective processes, Cunningham said.
“Henry Ford has a 98% occupancy rate and 95% of our intensive care beds are filled,” he said. “So we can still take care of more patients, but we’re getting close to the point where we really need to change some of the things that we do to treat additional patients.
“If the numbers continue to rise, we will simply redirect resources where we need them. … If the need arises, we will scrap more of those electives. We will do whatever it takes to care for COVID in our communities, and we have a team that comes together pretty much every day so we can review this and make sure we plan and anticipate everything.”
The U.S. Department of Defense deployed two emergency medical teams to hospitals in Dearborn and Grand Rapids this week to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Among them are doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists who will remain in the state for 30 days.
Cunningham said he was concerned the omicron variant could lead the state from a bad wave to an even worse one.
“This could make our current wave just get much higher,” Cunningham said, pointing out that the omicron variant was quickly pushing the delta as the predominant strain of the virus spreading in South Africa. “It has more mutations than any other variants we’ve seen,” he said. “To put it in perspective, delta had nine mutations in the spike protein. This one alone has 30 or 32 mutations in the spike protein. Some of these mutations we’ve seen before — the ones that make it more contagious… easier .
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“There are also some mutations (the full meaning of which we don’t know. Some computer models of these structural changes or mutations suggest that the vaccines will still work, but may not work as well.”
Still, Cunningham said: “We know that vaccines are better than natural immunity at preventing reinfection. It seems that natural immunity or previous infection may not protect against omicron. Again, small numbers of patients have been reported. Much more information to come out next week.”
As that data emerges, Cunningham said the nation will be able to better estimate just how much of a threat ommicrons really may be.
“The best-case scenario would be it’s contagious, but it won’t cause as many serious illnesses,” he said. “There are initial reports in South Africa that people given ommicron tended to be less severely ill – mostly fatigue, headaches, just being tired was really prevalent.
“South Africa has a fairly high vaccination coverage. So the question is: is it milder because so many people have been vaccinated or is it really an easier variant? We will find out in the next two weeks.”
Meanwhile, health experts agree that the best way to protect themselves is to get vaccinated.
“The virus explodes in the unvaccinated,” said Robert Bensley, a professor of public health at Western Michigan University.
“And we know that only about 54% of our population in Michigan is vaccinated. So we have a huge group that’s just there, waiting for COVID to infect them.”
The state’s plan, Bensley said, should be to pull out all the stops to get people to take the vaccines — including boosters for everyone who qualify.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines Monday, suggesting that all U.S. adults receiving a boost at least six months after the last dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine .
“That’s our number 1 defense,” he said. “Get vaccinated and stop attending provincial health assemblies and threatening public health officials. And stop going to school board meetings and demand that masks be removed from all schools.
“If we take all the measures — wearing a mask, the vaccine, the booster, social distancing — all those things are very simple concepts. That’s our best chance of doing something about reducing hospitalizations.”
But if people continue to refuse to be vaccinated and wear masks despite statewide health advice, and ignore other public health guidelines, Bensley said he fears people will continue to get sick — and the consequences are worrying.
“We can only do so much,” he said.
Hospital beds and healthcare workers are a limited resource. There may come a time, he said, when care may need to be rationed.
‘It wouldn’t be nice. Who suddenly decides whether you’re a star-bellied sore so that you survive or whether you’re a pot-bellied sneeze so you don’t survive?’ he said, referring to a story by Dr. Seuss in which the star-bellied bird-like creatures are preferred over the plain.
“It’s a big nightmare. But our first step… is getting the vaccine.”
Free Press contributor Eric D. Lawrence contributed to this report.
Contact Kristen Shamus: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
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