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Residents of 22 Michigan counties should wear masks inside, CDC advises

The residents of 22 Michigan counties should wear masks while inside, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises, up from 16 counties a week prior.

That includes Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties for the second week in a row, new data shows, as well as several new counties in the Upper Peninsula that previously were at lower levels. In total, more than 52% of Michiganians are advised to wear masks indoors.

Those 22 counties have "high" community levels, a classification from the CDC where new COVID cases and hospitalizations have risen to a point of concern. The high community level counties make up more than a quarter of all Michigan counties.

In communities with high community levels, people are recommended to wear masks while indoors. In place with medium community levels, masks are advised around people who may be more prone to serious illness if infected with COVID-19 and people are recommended to test for infections before socializing with people more at risk.

But, experts say, actual COVID rates are probably higher than what the CDC is reporting. The rise of home tests and the increase of general apathy toward the virus in general means that it's likely nearly every Michigan county would be at the high level, said Dr. Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research for Beaumont Health.

"In an ideal world, everything would be reported, so we could have good tracking of what's going on. Even a few months ago, all the tests got reported," Sims said. "We don't have that anymore. It makes it hard to know the extent of the issue."

He said over the course of the weekend, COVID cases at Beaumont jumped by a third. He didn't see too many COVID patients last week, he said, but by the end of the weekend, he was once again seeing several a day.

Not all of them were extremely sick, he said — many were admitted to the hospital for a different reason before it was discovered they also had COVID, something Sims said has become more common since the omicron variant became the predominant strain of the virus.

Still, having COVID at all puts an extra strain on the hospital. Patients have to be isolated and certain treatments can't happen while a patient has the virus. 

"We are not at a crisis level right now, but we're getting closer," Sims said. "Numbers are going up. If they peak around here, we'll do OK. If they keep going up, that would be a different story."

Dr. Dennis Cunningham, system medical director of infection control and prevention at Henry Ford Health, said that he did not think the current surge would be as bad as others, particularly not like the one that happened in December and January with the initial omicron variant wave.

He said during a news conference Tuesday that he has seen the number of employees getting sick rise a little. The number of sick staff members remains low, though, something Cunningham credited to vaccinations and constant mask-wearing by staff.

"When there's more COVID in the community, we do see staff illnesses go up a little bit, but right now it's lower than it has been with any of the other surges."

Based on the CDC's newest community levels, roughly 52% of all Michigan residents should be wearing masks while indoors, a small increase from just over 50% a week prior. Two weeks ago, only one county — Grand Traverse, in the northern Lower Peninsula — was at a high level.

The CDC reported another 30 counties are in the medium community level, accounting for an additional 28.6% of Michiganians.

Michigan added 29,627 new COVID-19 cases and 78 deaths on Wednesday, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. That averages out to about 4,181 new cases per day across the state, up from 3,958 a week before. Cases have risen in the state for six consecutive weeks.

National health leaders, including Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, urged local leaders to encourage people to wear masks again in public settings and to increase access to testing. Several health agencies in Metro Detroit have done that in recent weeks, including recommendations from Oakland and Washtenaw counties last week and recommendations from Macomb and Wayne counties, as well as Detroit, on Wednesday.

Everyone should be wearing masks and using other prevention measures where community levels are high, Walensky said during a White House COVID briefing on Wednesday. The numbers released Thursday show that 9.21% of all counties in the U.S. are at a high community level this week, up from about 4.3% last week. 

Community levels have remained high in New England and have also begun to spread through the Midwest, notably in Minnesota and Wisconsin, although several other states and Puerto Rico have counties with high community levels.

"As we’re currently seeing a steady rise of cases in parts of the country, we encourage everyone to use the menu of tools we have today to prevent further infection and severe disease," she said, "including wearing a mask, getting tested, accessing treatments early if infected, and getting vaccinated or boosted, especially if you’re over 50 and if your last dose was more than five months ago."

Experts say it can be hard to predict what comes next. It is difficult to know when the current surge will peak, Sims said, or what will affect it. While impending warm weather may help cut down on some infections as people opt to once again meet outside, he said, it also heralds the start of backyard get-togethers and sporting events where people may be less cautious. 

It can also be hard to know which variant will next take over in Michigan, Cunningham said. Several variants have moved through the U.S., and while health leaders around the world are monitoring all sorts of new strains, it is difficult to say exactly what will come next to Michigan.

Cunningham's prediction is that new strains of the omicron variant would likely come next, although it is not clear how well current vaccines work against those. Those strains have made a mark in South Africa, where studies have shown that even past omicron infections may not offer enough immunity to avoid getting sick again.

New versions of the COVID-19 vaccine may help to address that, though. Moderna has had early success with a "bivalent vaccine," one that works against two different viruses or even multiple strains of the same virus. Sims told The News last week that he expected that would be the likely next step in protection against the virus. It is normal for vaccines to evolve with time, which is vaccines like pneumonia have added additional strains since their inception or why the flu shot changes every year.

In the meantime, however, the best way experts advise to protect yourself is to keep your distance and wear a mask. Sims noted that it is probably time to shift to heavier-duty masks, such as KN95s, KF94s or even N95s while in public, rather than just standard surgical masks.

Surgical masks are good at preventing the spread of illness when everyone is masking, he said, but since so many people are now opting out, more-protective masks are now probably the best course of action, particularly in crowds.

He said that supply shortages for masks that existed at other times of the pandemic are not as bad now, although that could change if things get bad in other parts of the country again. Surgical masks worn in combination with cloth masks are better than either alone, Sim said, but it is no longer difficult to find a variety of protective gear online and in stores.

"Personally, I'm wearing KF94s in my everyday life," he said. "I wear a KN95 if I'm in the room with a patient or going on a plane flight. I wear KF94s if I'm just going shopping or whatever. Find something good that fits your face, and get a lot of them."

Twitter: @Hayley__Harding