The number of COVID-19 cases locally has had a small recent uptick and the test positivity rate has increased over the last 2 weeks, indicating that we are less likely to be detecting all the cases that exist. For now, this is a fairly small increase but there are some signs from other parts of the country that should remind us to continue to be vigilant and to be vaccinated when we have the chance.
Several states have had large increases in recent cases, with the most prominent example being Michigan. Similar to Iowa, Michigan had a large outbreak in November and December but their recent outbreak has reached a number of daily cases that is almost identical to the November outbreak. This wouldn’t be concerning if all these cases were mild, but that isn’t what is happening. On December 1, Michigan reached their peak number of hospitalizations for any day in the pandemic at just over 4,300. By early March, they were down below 900 hospitalizations on any given day. Since then the number of hospitalizations has skyrocketed all the way back to over 3,600 as of today (you can see the numbers by day here https://infogram.com/covid-19-hospitalization-data-1h7z2lrmxy9y2ow). There are two details about this outbreak that are particularly concerning and relevant to our local situation. First, the vast majority of cases (about 75%) now are due to the B.1.1.7 (United Kingdom) variant. It is now quite clear that this variant is both more easily transmitted and causes more severe illness than the strains that initially came around. Second, all across the country we are seeing a change in what age groups are being hospitalized. As most of the older population has received at least one dose of vaccination, hospitalization rates in the 60+ age group have fallen and stayed low. However, the number of hospitalizations among people under age 60 has started to increase again. You can see a graph of this data in the attached file.
The summary of this information is that there is still very real risk of severe illness in the age groups that have not yet been widely vaccinated, especially as variants spread. The good news is that vaccines protect well against variants too. We have especially good data showing that the Pfizer vaccine is protective against the B.1.1.7 variant, but so far it appears that all of the vaccines available in the U.S. offer good protection against severe disease caused by this particular variant.