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Looking behind the COVID-19 numbers

County health official explains how pandemic has changed

KENT COUNTY, Mich. — In Michigan, the number of new cases dropped for the third straight day Monday, before rising again on Tuesday. The total number of cases has now passed the 66,000 mark. Additionally, 30 deaths were reported Tuesday, but 20 of those came from a review of death certificate data. The death toll is over 6,000. 

However the numbers only tell part of the story. After four months of fighting the pandemic much has changed.

"Well I think it is a little bit different. We're in a different situation right now than we were in March. In March, we were seeing cases and a lot of people were being hospitalized or people in long term care facilities," says Brian Hartl, epidemiology supervisor for the Kent County Health Department. "We were shut down. Everything was in place to kind of limit transmission in our community. Now, in the past two weeks, we've seen a lot more individuals who've been out and about in the community."

Hartl has been tracking the pandemic numbers since the beginning. He says one major difference is the demographic of those testing positive right now.

"It has really shifted. We're seeing a lot younger people who are testing positive now than we did, you know, say, a month ago," he says. "I think last week our average case age was about 32 years of age, whereas before it was a lot older than that because we we're seeing a lot more people in hospitals and in long term care facilities testing positive. Now, we're not seeing that as much as that we're seeing more people who are out and about in the community testing positive."

In theory, younger means healthier. Hartl says as a result COVID-19 related hospitalizations are down in Kent County. However, that does not mean the virus is any less dangerous.

"That's true. So, I know the hospitals, when we just spoke to them last week, their numbers were low. They didn't have a lot of individuals who were in the hospital. So we're seeing less severe cases at this point because we're seeing a younger demographic," he says. "But, I think what we don't know yet, is how that's going to impact those people who are more vulnerable. As we're seeing more and more cases in the young population, are they exposing those who may be more vulnerable? Are they going to see family and friends who are older or have underlying conditions? And, if so, it's yet to be seen how this recent spike in cases and recent shift in demographics will impact those hospitalizations and in more severe cases down the road."

Hartl says he's concerned when he sees people gathering without wearing masks or practicing social distancing guidelines. He added, a second wave of infections is not impossible at this point.

"We know that this virus is transmitted through close contact, face to face contact within six feet of each other. We put a lot of precautions in place to stop that and prevent that," he said. "We understand that people have been cooped up and are itching to get out and do things like they used to. They want to get back to normal a little bit. We just want to make sure that people are aware that this virus isn't going away. You know, we're seeing that. We're seeing the resurgence of cases, and those types of activities really increase people's risk for transmitting that virus."

He says the numbers could potentially spike again if people are not careful and do not abide by precautions .

"We don't know exactly how the virus acts in the summertime. I think we all kind of thought the summertime would be a time when we'd see a lower number of cases, but so far that's not the case," says Hartl. "You know we just hit the peak of summertime - Fourth of July - and we saw the biggest number of cases in Kent County that we've seen in a long time. So, I think the potential is still there. Like I said the virus is going to go away anytime soon and really if we see a wave or not really depends on people's actions over the course of the next couple of weeks."

Right now, he says, between 2,000 to 3,000 COVID-19 test are administered daily in Kent County. That, too, can influence the numbers. 

"That does play into it a little bit. Our numbers show that over the course of three-day span, around the 30th of June and the first and second of July, we tested more people in Kent County than anywhere across the state. We tested about 7,000 people in those three days in Kent County," he said.

Hartl says this is a virus we will continue to learn more about, including how it's transmitted and how to stop transmission. And we're doing, doing our best to kind of get that message out for people to protect themselves and others around them.

"Times like last week when we saw an increase in our cases shows why we need to continue to do that and be selfless, be a good citizen, think about what you're doing and how it impacts others," says Hartl.

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