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Variant spread in latest surge means more people may need vaccinations to reach herd immunity

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Zoom screenshot Munson news conference
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Northern Michigan vaccine clinics will go forward without the single-dose Johnson and Johnson shots. 

Hospitalization of children with COVID-19-related illnesses are on the rise, according to public health experts who spoke during a Munson press conference Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Munson Healthcare reported the highest two-week average in COVID cases it’s ever seen and cases are still rising.

What’s happening with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

The U.S. Centers for Diseases and Control and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommend pausing administration of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine because of concerns of a rare blood clotting disorder. 

Most of the northern Michigan clinics that were using the Johnson & Johnson vaccines have said clinics scheduled this week will go forward, but with the Pfiser or Moderna vaccines instead. Local health departments report replacement vaccines are readily available. Their only challenge is scheduling second dose clinics.

Munson doctors say people who have had the J&J vaccine shouldn’t worry. The reported side effects have affected a tiny number of people—only six cases of blood clotting complications out of millions of vaccinations. Still, they recommend those who had the vaccine to self-monitor for severe headache and abdominal pain and to contact your primary care provider if you have concerns.

With cases still rising, should we be doing something different to control the virus?

There’s been conflicting information from elected officials and public health experts about what Michigan should do to manage this recent surge. 

A CDC official said the state doesn’t need more vaccines, rather, stricter shutdowns should go into effect. Meanwhile, Governor Gretchen Whitmer insists that if the state had more vaccines, we could reach herd immunity faster and protect more people. (Right now about 40% of residents are fully vaccinated, northern Michigan is near 50%).

Whitmer’s recent response is a departure from much of her restrictive approach throughout most of the pandemic. Now, she’s appealing to communities and individuals to take responsibility for slowing infections. Last week, she asked schools to close and sports to take a two week pause. Schools in northern Michigan largely resisted.

Munson officials say one way to prevent schools and workplaces from shutting down is for people to pay attention to symptoms and take sick time. They say if you notice a running nose or any mild symptoms, isolate at home and get tested.

What is the risk of infection across the region?

COVID is not showing any signs of slowing down. There’s still a rapid increase in cases in the state and region and in-patients have greatly increased in all area hospitals. One doctor said in northern Michigan, “it’s as bad now as it’s ever been.” 

The same doctor said the heightened variant spread in the state likely means we’re going to need to vaccinate more than 70 to 80% of our population to protect the community. He estimates reaching herd immunity will require vaccination rates more similar to what’s needed to avoid infection from measles, the hyper-contagious illness which requires 95% of children to be vaccinated.

Thankfully, the number of COVID patients in the ICU, and patients requiring a ventilator is low. Still, Munson officials say COVID patients are hurting. 

Why are more kids getting sick?

One worrying trend is that the increase in infections is also causing more children to be admitted to the hospital for MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a rare condition where children experience a severe inflammatory response that affects two or more organ systems. Right now, it appears that’s confined to southeastern Michigan, but hospitals Up North are expecting to see more of these cases. 

Health officials worry that because there’s no vaccine approved for people 15 and younger, and with variants speeding up transmission, children are more susceptible to these uncommon, but extremely serious disorders.

Recent MDHHS figures show 28 children have been treated for MIS-C in the state. Cases have ranged from mild to severe, requiring amputations or leaving children with cognitive impairment in some cases. The nearest children’s hospital in Grand Rapids has treated about a dozen children with the syndrome, and one child has died.