As COVID-19 infection rates rise steeply in Detroit and across Michigan, the state's biggest city isn't leading the pack on response like it once was.
Detroit was an early COVID-19 hot spot that got national praise for how it lowered its infection rates and kept them down through much of the past year. But now Mayor Mike Duggan warns the city could be on track for a repeat of last spring when hospitals were overloaded. Detroit has announced a new weeklong series of community events in the race to immunize its residents against the virus, while its vaccination rate still lags far behind the state.
The number of Detroit residents in the hospital with COVID-19 has tripled in the past two weeks to more than 260 — an indication of serious illness on the rise, Duggan said in a news conference Monday.
"If this triples again in another two or three weeks, we are talking about the kinds of levels we saw last March and April, when people were on gurneys in hallways," the mayor said. "This is real. And it is hitting our city now in a way that we are not properly preparing for ... These are the worst infection rates we have seen, I believe, really, since almost a year ago."
He said there needs to be more focus on the surge at the state and city level.
Michigan on Monday reported 10,293 new cases of COVID-19 for Sunday and Monday as well as 21 new deaths. That brings the total cases to 702,499 and deaths to 16,239, according to state data.
According to The New York Times, Michigan accounts for seven of the 10 metropolitan areas nationwide with the most daily cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks. Metro Detroit is second on the list with 66.97 per 100,000 people, topped only by Jackson at 77.7.
Michigan also occupies nine of the top 10 spots when it comes to the increase in case rates over the past week, according to The Times.
In the fall, Detroit was doing better than neighboring counties when it came to infection rates, Duggan said. Early in the second wave of the pandemic, in October, Detroit's proportion of COVID-19 tests that came back positive started as low as 1.25% and ranged up to 5.7% by the month's end, per Michigan data. Statewide, for comparison, that rate ranged over 9% in late October and got above 15% in December, while Detroit remained under 11%. The general standard has been to keep rates under 3%.
But now it's "going exactly the opposite direction," the mayor said Monday.
The city's percent positivity rate as of Friday was nearly 20%, a steady uptick from 2% to 4% in early March. The state's positivity rate as a whole was nearly 18% Friday, the most recent date available. Some surrounding counties are still slightly higher than Detroit, though: Macomb was at 25% on Friday, compared with just higher than 17% for Oakland and nearly 21% for Wayne County outside Detroit.
Duggan predicts Detroit could surpass all of its neighbors if things don't change.
"Everything that we were so proud of for the last nine months, being a leader ... We are not a national model right now," he said. "... And I'm hoping we will pull together as we did a year ago and beat this thing as a community."
Not only are cases on the rise, but Detroit has the lowest vaccination rate of any locality in the state. It hasn't yet immunized a fourth of its population, while the state overall has surpassed a third.
Detroit has opened vaccination sites in churches and community centers, gone to manufacturers' plants and approved $430,000 to be spent on vaccination-related advertising to get Detroiters in line for shots.
Yet, Detroit had 20.9% of residents vaccinated as of Sunday, per state data. The state's coverage rate is 36.5%, with Oakland County beating that at 40.5%. Macomb County is at 32.9% and Wayne County outside of Detroit is at 39.3%.
In a further expansion of outreach efforts, Duggan on Monday announced what the city is calling Neighborhood Vaccine Week. Starting April 12, Detroit will offer Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccines at eight neighborhood locations.
Detroit is expanding its J&J usage after Duggan in early March contributed to discourse that placed J&J on a lower level than two-shot doses of Moderna and Pfizer, against the recommendations of the CDC, state and experts. Duggan has since reversed course, with the city saying it gladly accepts the additional doses.
Duggan said Monday that counties with higher incomes have higher vaccination rates, which is partly to blame for the gap in vaccine coverage. And it's an assertion that has evidence.
Disparities in vaccine coverage are playing out across the U.S. People of color disproportionately hurt by the coronavirus crisis are getting fewer vaccines, The New York Times reported March 5, based on public data from 38 states, including Michigan.
More affluent Americans are more likely to have been vaccinated so far, according to a Feb. 5-March 1 survey of 21,000 people led by Northwestern University. Of Americans making more than $150,000 a year, 24% had been vaccinated and of those making less than $25,000 just 9% had.
The Los Angeles Times reported early last month that its wealthy communities had more than 20% vaccination rates while some low-income communities have under 10% rates. L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Times it was partnering with religious and community groups to help make the process more equitable, and setting up pop-up clinics.