Q&A: Kalamazoo County Epidemiologist Mary Franks

The county health department's COVID expert rings the alarm of a worsening pandemic while providing solutions for turning it around.

If you’re keeping an eye on the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services department’s COVID-19 tracker data, you may get worried. 

Nearly every data point there shows the pandemic is at its worst to date. How can that be after everything the community has done over the past seven months to reduce infection rates and prevent COVID from spreading?

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Mary Franks, the department’s epidemiologist, updated the community on Facebook Live, which you can watch here.

Afterward, NowKalamazoo dug into the details with Franks:

The data is looking better the past six days, but both the seven day moving spread and daily numbers seems like it’s the worst it’s been in the pandemic. Is that right? Why? How concerned are you? And how should a county resident look at it without freaking out?

Yes, Kalamazoo County is seeing an increase in daily numbers. We are also seeing this around the region, state and country. This is our second wave. The cause of the higher numbers is multifactorial. We’ve reengaged the colleges and K-12 schools and allowed for larger gatherings. The Executive Order ruling has undermined public health measures and we’re seeing compliance issues in terms of risk mitigation strategies.

Right now is not the time to let down your guard when it comes to basic measures such as mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing. Yes, we are seeing a higher transmission rate and higher percent positivity rate for testing in the county, but remaining vigilant and reducing your exposure and practicing the aforementioned basic measures is the best way to protect yourself and your family.

There’s been a trend both here and nationwide of taking COVID less seriously – whether it’s fallout from Michigan Supreme Court striking down the governor’s executive orders, political leaders playing down risks and not playing up masks and other mitigating actions, or the talk of herd immunity. Assuming that trend continues and fewer people wear masks and social distance, what is the likelihood that we continue to see recent high numbers or worse?

We are very concerned about the public not complying with mitigation measures. We’re in the second wave of COVID-19 cases, and the second wave has already proved to be larger than the first. Now is not the time for noncompliance, especially as the weather changes and we don’t have the ability to host gatherings outside.

Some public schools are looking at reopening in person. Based on best-known historical trends and data, what will this do in the immediate two weeks aftermath for schools? How would it impact the community as a whole?

We are seeing a smattering of cases within K-12 schools, however, we’ve seen minimal secondary transmission in the school setting. Upon performing disease investigations, we have found that the source of exposure for positive cases within a school are largely social gatherings that did not occur on school grounds. This is an excellent reminder that our behavior at school or work needs to continue into our personal lives.

Schools and places of employment have excellent policies and procedures in place to mitigate risk of exposure. What we’re seeing is that students and staff are being exposed outside of the school setting and bringing that exposure into the school setting. Vigilance is key in order to reduce the likelihood of exposure.

Hospitalizations have gone up. What’s the percentage of capacity for Bronson and Borgess here in the county? What’s the risk that hospitals will be overloaded?

Hospitalizations have gone up, although we’re not seeing as many hospitalizations as we did in April and May. Kalamazoo County meets twice a week or more with our hospital systems. We are confident in their planning for surge capacity. We are better prepared now than several months ago and are planning accordingly.

The 20-29 age group, clearly college students, underpinned at least part of the increase in caseloads. You’re seeing that demographic improve lately? 

We’ve seen a decreased percent positivity from WMU and have seen fewer positive cases. WMU is employing excellent risk mitigation strategies and we continue to work in tandem.

Any significant changes in any other age group?

For hospitalizations, we’re seeing more middle aged adults. So far adolescent hospitalizations have not increased.

What about for mortality rates – have the younger age groups picked up at all?

The burden of the mortality continues to be in the older adults with comorbidities. We have no deaths reported in the 0-19 year old age group.

What should the community know about COVID risks as we enter flu season?

It is imperative that every person aged 6 months and older get their flu shot this year. As COVID-19 and Influenza are both respiratory diseases, we know that if a person is co-infected, it will lead to worse health outcomes, especially in older adults and vulnerable populations.

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