Over the past week, Michigan earned the dubious distinction of having seven of the Top Ten worst metro areas in America for new COVID cases. Lansing was No. 4. The seven-day average positivity rate for coronavirus tests, a key indicator of community spread, has surged above 15% statewide — double that number in some counties — a clear indication that the coronavirus is once again spinning out of control. Even though the pace of vaccinations is quickening, it’s not enough to stem a resurgent viral tide that is now spreading faster than Spring blossoms on an apple tree.
With new cases across the state climbing toward 10,000 a day — the highest number since the pandemic’s “second wave” last November — we have to ask: What is going wrong? Are people letting down their guard and ignoring the standard prevention mantra of masking, distancing, hand washing and avoiding crowds? Is it the reopening of restaurants and bars, even at reduced capacity? Is it the restart of high school sports? Is it driven by the new, more contagious variants from Great Britain and Brazil? Or is it the attitudes and behavior of young people, who feel like they have nothing to fear from the coronavirus and act accordingly?
The most likely explanation is a combination of all these factors. People are flat out exhausted by the inconveniences of pandemic life and appear to be increasingly willing to take their chances by engaging in risky behaviors. That the cohort of new cases is trending significantly younger — nearly half of all positive cases are now found between the ages of 10 and 29 —suggests that young people are a big part of the problem. The good news is that they are far less likely to get seriously ill or die from COVID-19, but this is little comfort to people in high-risk categories who have yet to be vaccinated.
And the worst may still be ahead of us, with out-of-state Spring Break trips and family Easter gatherings set to spread the virus even further. On Monday, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, sounded the alarm, telling The New York Times she felt a sense of “impending doom.” President Biden himself urged states to pause their reopening efforts, saying that the country was “giving up hard-fought, hard-won gains.”
We all had hoped that the acceleration of vaccine deployment across the state would put a lid on COVID, but it’s now clear that not enough people are vaccinated to have a meaningful impact. As of last Friday, more than one-third of Michigan residents had received at least one vaccine dose, and nearly one-quarter were fully vaccinated, including more than half of adults age 65 and over. This is a major accomplishment and good news for the state’s most vulnerable senior population, but it will likely take until this summer before the vast majority of seniors are fully vaccinated, and even longer before most Michigan residents of all ages are inoculated.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appears to be in no hurry to resurrect her previous lockdown measures. We’re not surprised. The nonsensical, non-science-based politics of the pandemic has created a toxic, polarized environment that weighs heavily against another lockdown. Whitmer’s reelection is now less than two years away, and her political advisers are surely considering the potential for lasting damage that could come from enacting wildly unpopular new restrictions.
But Whitmer has been a model of resolute courage, even in the face of withering criticism and assassination plots, so we won’t be surprised if she steps up to the plate and clamps down.
COVID deniers are fond of pointing to states where restrictions have been lifted but COVID cases are still under control as an argument against reinstating a lockdown here in Michigan. We don’t have the epidemiological expertise to know why that’s the case, but we’re far more inclined to side with Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail, who says she is “deeply concerned” with Ingham County’s positive test rate, and who is already taking steps to mitigate the spike.
On Monday she called on area schools to suspend in-person classes for grades 6-12 for one week following Spring Break and to conduct rapid testing of all students who traveled.
We think it’s time for Whitmer to err on the side of science and caution and once again enact some tough but temporary new restrictions, delivered with a stern aside that the only reason the lockdown is necessary is too many people refuse to comply with commonsense measures to keep themselves and their families safe. She will be excoriated, no doubt, and subjected to even more threats, defiance and legislative intransigence, but that is the burden of leadership.
Making the tough calls necessary to stem the COVID tide isn’t easy, but science says a new round of containment orders will flatten the curve once again, protect hospital ICUs from being overrun and save lives. That’s why Whitmer should move swiftly to suspend high school sports, pause construction, get even tougher on restaurants, bars, offices and factory floors where COVID protocols are being ignored, and require all K-12 schools, colleges and universities to go virtual for the remainder of the school year.
The data is clear, but the political will to act remains murky. Now is not the time to throw up our collective hands and concede defeat. A few more weeks, perhaps a month, of targeted restrictions and ramped up vaccinations should put Michigan back on the road to life after the pandemic.