A group of 11 family members and friends recently gathered for a night of playing cards at a home in the eastern portion of the Upper Peninsula.

Soon after, all 11 individuals tested positive for COVID-19.

Their story is like dozens of others that Kerry Ott, health officer for the LMAS Health District, has heard through the Upper Peninsula’s contact-tracing efforts.

Small gatherings. No masks. Further spread of the coronavirus.

“When people are with people they know, they don’t think they have to take precautions,” Ott said. “You can’t tell which one started it but someone was infected, they didn’t know it, and it spreads.”

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has been hit hard by the rising surge of coronavirus cases. The region is averaging 217 new cases and four new deaths per day over the last week, with 12.1% of tests coming back positive.

Dickinson and Delta counties are leading the state with positive test rates of 20-34%. Five other U.P. counties are above 10%, and only Schoolcraft (1.6%) is below the 5% threshold the World Health Organizations recommends for closing schools and economies.

“The reasons that have brought us to this critical point include general COVID fatigue, political divisions, conspiracy theories and, sadly, a growing lack of compassion for each other,” reads a joint statement from four U.P. hospitals and the LMAS Health Department.

“Without broad cooperation and basic consideration for others, things are going to get much worse.”

Related: Coronavirus overwhelming Michigan hospitals, leaders warn; ‘the system can capsize’

What concerns health experts most about the recent surge is the impact on local hospitals, as well as on EMS services that are being used to transport sick patients south to hospitals that still have room available.

U.P. hospitals have a total of 570 in-patient beds, of which 50% were occupied as of Monday, Nov. 16. Of those, only 79 are ICU beds and 73% were occupied.

In Ott’s area, the four counties of Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft have four critical access hospitals. Most have 12-15 beds and no ICU. So when someone requires intensive care, they’re transported elsewhere.

And the hospitals that normally take those patients are filling up.

Ott said Marquette would normally be their first choice for patient transfers, but they’re not accepting any more patients. The next option is McLaren in Petoskey, “but last I heard they’re not taking anybody either.”

Instead, U.P. residents needing critical care are being moved further south to places like Munson Medical Center in Traverse City or McLaren Northern Michigan in Gaylord.

“But I know they’re all dealing with capacity issues as well,” she said. “We just need people to stop gathering with others who they don’t live with. I can’t say that enough.”

Related: Masks in small social gatherings could be key to reducing coronavirus spread in Michigan

Gar Atchison, Chief Executive Officer and Market President at UP Health System in Marquette, said he’s seeing some “pretty alarming case rates with testing centers seeing 30% positive test rates for multiple days in a row.

Of the patients in the UP Health System’s ICU beds, 61% were there with COVID-19 as of last week. With limited ICU capacity beyond Marquette, Atchison said the hospital is really “the safety net” for the rest of the peninsula.

State Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, and Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, have kept regular contact with hospital leaders to gauge their needs. They said the hospitals aren’t panicking yet, but they continue to urge the public to take necessary precautions to avoid overwhelming the limited hospital capacity.

Both legislators reported seeing pretty good compliance with mask requirements in the U.P. Cambensy said some small businesses aren’t requiring masks, but McBroom said compliance isn’t much different than places he’s been in the Lower Peninsula.

“Really in the U.P. if you talk to our healthcare providers, we never really had the first wave,” McBroom said. “What we had in the spring was a slight sprinkling compared to what others got. It’s here now.”

Related: Community spread reaches Mackinac Island after it dodged coronavirus this summer

While wearing masks out in public is one thing, healthcare leaders say it’s just as important to mask-up when spending time indoors with small groups of family and friends.

“When we’ve asked our hospital CEOs where this is coming from, they’ve pointed to small gatherings of family members or immediate close friends,” Cambensy said. “Groups of six to eight to 10 people in a house is where a lot of transmission is taking place.

The LMAS Health Department had previously been relying on the state for contact tracing, but has recently taken on more of the responsibility with the state being overwhelmed. Ott said she’s moving more of her 45 staff members into contact tracing roles, which she’s found has been better received from residents who appear more willing to speak with local tracers.

“It’s becoming a heavy lift,” she said. “But generally the feeling is people are more apt to accept the information and follow the quarantine guidelines if they’re talking to us. It helps to have that friendly and local voice on the other end of the call.”

In a joint statement from Helen Newberry Joy Hospital, Mackinac Straits Health System, Munising Memorial Hospital and Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital, health care leader said the rising case and hospitalization numbers limit public health capacity to contain the spread and reduces hospitals’ ability to care for patients.

“It is imperative that we all work together,” reads the statement. “This has been a long haul, and we’re not done with COVID-19 yet. We must slow the spread of this virus, but it is up to you to choose to do the right things and have compassion for others even if it means you must make small, personal sacrifices like wearing a mask and skipping a holiday gathering.

“These are small prices to pay to protect your life and the health and lives of others.”

Read more on MLive:

Tuesday, Nov. 17, coronavirus data by Michigan county: 6 counties now above 20% positivity rate

Wait times for COVID-19 testing on the rise with new cases

West Michigan hospitals know the virus better now, but do they have enough staff for another surge?



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