“This is our second wave”

And it's bigger than the first, Kalamazoo County's epidemiologist says. But we can still turn it around.

Kalamazoo’s COVID-19 infection rates are at the highest they’ve ever been due to a collection of reasons largely related to members in the community acting like the pandemic is over – which is doubly troubling as flu season begins.

Mary Franks, the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services department’s epidemiologist, told NowKalamazoo it requires a redoubling of efforts that worked in the past in order to bring down infection rates again.

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Read our Q&A with Franks here.

“We are very concerned about the public not complying with mitigation measures,” Franks said. “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.”

There are a number of factors why more people are social distancing less and going unmasked, such as the recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders which has invigorated anti-maskers and provided cover to those with pandemic fatigue. 

There’s also a dearth of role models: Michigan state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, for example, has couched a mask debate as a battle between safety and freedom while also suggesting an unsubstantiated concept of herd immunity as the inevitable conclusion of the pandemic. During a town hall on NBC Thursday night, Trump claimed 85% of people who wear masks contract COVID-19, which is false and a misrepresentation of a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Data shows a worrying trend here in Kalamazoo, too.

On May 6, according to the Kalamazoo County health department’s COVID-19 tracker data, the county registered 42 confirmed cases and a seven-day average of 22 cases. It improved since then, with the seven-day average dropping to below four cases on multiple occasions and new daily caseloads as low as one over the summer. On Oct. 8, there were 45 new confirmed cases and the seven-day spread reached more than 58 cases. On Wednesday, there were 18 new cases and a 31 case count for the seven-day spread, which tracks the trend rather than a less useful single-day count. 

On Thursday, the state recorded 2,030 cases – a single day record

“This is our second wave,” Franks said. “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.”

After the state Supreme Court ruling, both the state and Kalamazoo county health departments issued replacement orders in an attempt to re-establish better practices as the consequences of lax adherence plays out.

Last week, Kalamazoo Metro Transit announced restricted operations due to a COVID-related bus driver shortage. Four schools in a statewide education-related outbreak are in Kalamazoo County.

Franks pointed to a silver lining in the data: Students and staff may be increasingly contracting the virus, but they’re not getting it or sharing it at school.

“This is an excellent reminder that our behavior at school or work needs to continue into our personal lives,” Franks said.

The return of college students to town is also believed to be a major cause of the increasing case load in the county, with a sharp rise in cases of people in their 20s, though Franks said that’s gone down due to “risk mitigation strategies” at Western Michigan University in particular.

“Middle aged adults” are being hospitalized more frequently, but there’s been no other significant increase in any other age group, Franks said. And while hospitalizations are picking up, they’re lower than in the early months of the pandemic and local hospitals “are better prepared … and are planning accordingly.”

Still, “the burden of the mortality continues to be in the older adults with comorbidities,” Franks said, while Kalamazoo has seen no deaths in the 19-and-under age groups.

Looming large right now is yet another risk: The start of flu season, for which Franks suggests everyone get their shot.

“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,” Franks said.

That’s the bad news, and although there may seem to be a lot of it, the community isn’t helpless to fight back against the rising spread of the pandemic. And the weapons in the fight aren’t new, perhaps just a bit rusty.

“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,” Franks said. “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.”

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