MDHHS Virtual Roundtable Reveals Troubling Trends, Challenges as Michigan Faces Latest Wave of COVID-19

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A roundtable of health experts led by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ director Robert Gordon and chief medical executive and deputy director for health, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, addressed the current rise in COVID-19 across Michigan. Major concerns expressed throughout the entire conversation included adherence to low-risk solutions – like wearing masks and avoiding gatherings – lack of effective quarantining and isolation, and demographic shifts.

Latest Trends
Emily Martin
, associate professor of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, provided some context on the trends emerging with the virus in this latest wave. The magnitude and speed of this increase is unlike anything the state has seen since spring, Martin said, and though testing has increased, this increase supersedes that impact. A troubling factor of this increase is that it is consistent across all regions of the state, whereas in the spring and summer months, outbreaks were staggered regional and easier to target. Martin also noted significant demographic shifts from young adults to the 30-49 age group. Though certain demographics on their own may face lower risks, issues arise in monitoring how these groups interact, especially in terms of their varying levels of risk.

Danger in Gatherings
As COVID-19 cases are on the rise across the state, a common thread of this surge is outbreaks attached to large gatherings. Michiganders must be wary of gathering with those outside of their households and assess risk based on several criteria, like whether the gathering is indoors or outdoors and what ventilation is like, what kind of activity is occurring (i.e. loud speaking, laughing, eating, etc.), and the period of time of exposure to others. Dr. Thomas Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said to think of the virus as second-hand smoke. The more people present at a gathering, the higher the likelihood that someone is shedding the virus and will spread it to others. The impact extends beyond the gathering too, into each attendee’s family, workplace, and community, increasing the difficulty and complexity of tracing protocols and potential for spread.

Quarantine Challenges
Throughout the discussion, the lack of proper quarantining and isolation practices was consistently cited as a significant obstacle to containing the virus. Stringent quarantine practices are required to track and reduce exposure to the virus. Professionals at the forefront of these efforts are seeking ways to encourage, better inform, and create circumstances that better enable people exposed to the coronavirus to effectively quarantine or isolate, said Frieden. Angelique Joynes, health officer for Allegan County Health Department, acknowledged how challenging convincing residence of the importance of these practices really is. Joynes and her team do their best to help people understand that quarantine and isolation are mandatory when exposed – there is not room to position it as optional. Digging into that challenge, though, she recognized barriers many face to being able to properly do so, such as employment restrictions, child care or housing needs, and more, for which leaders must develop sustainable solutions and support to ensure effectiveness.

Skepticism is particularly high among young adults. Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson and Dr. Norman Beauchamp, executive vice president for Health Sciences at Michigan State University, both claimed this as an issue among students. Wilson said students underestimate the severity of this virus and aren’t mindful of the long-term health implications it can have. Beauchamp discussed tactics like informational campaigns, student ambassador engagement, and mental health resources to alleviate some of the psychological impacts of isolation to encourage increased understanding and adoption.

Confusion and Communication
Another significant obstacle to managing the spread of COVID-19, especially now, is ever-changing guidance and ensuring the public has the most up-to-date information. Without centralized information and the onus put on localities and disparate agencies, encouraging safe practices among populations is increasingly difficult. Regulations that vary from state to state, region to region, and so on reduce credibility and willingness to participate in simple, life-saving measures like social distancing and mask wearing. Now more than ever, people need straightforward, clear, and unified guidance on how to mitigate the spread of the virus and keep them, their families, friends, workplaces, and communities healthy and safe.


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