All across Michigan, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge. More cases and hospitalizations have been reported, while hospital staff members are leaving in protest of vaccine mandates. As the colder months are upon us, state health departments need to adapt. Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia gives a local perspective on these developments with WEMU's David Fair.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. Portions of the state are being overwhelmed with new cases of COVID-19, primarily the Delta variant. Some hospitals are unable to handle the influx of patients, and others are seeing a good amount of employees leave voluntarily after vaccine mandates. The pandemic is, unfortunately, alive and well and still taking a toll on our public health. What's happening here in Washtenaw County? For answers, we turn to Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. Susan is communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department. And thanks as always for the time today.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Thanks for having us, David.
David Fair: Let's start with budgets. When Governor Whitmer signed the new state budget into law, she did not veto Republican-written language that would withdraw funding to local health departments if it were to continue or issue new emergency COVID masking orders in schools. Four different counties in the state did immediately withdraw their masking mandates, and after assurances from the governor that the language was both unenforceable and unconstitutional, Washtenaw County made the decision to stay with its emergency orders. Easy or difficult decision for you at the health department?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, it certainly puts all of us in an awkward position that continues to be difficult both for us at the public health level as well as our schools and, you know, creates confusion in the community. You know I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding and what we're going with is that the legality of the issues aren't in question, right? But there is this potential threat to local health department funding. And for us in Washtenaw, we're very fortunate that we do have support of our elected officials, so we don't see that threat being carried through. In other words, our local officials aren't going to vote to do that. And, you know, that is not the case in some other areas. And there is a lot of concern about the impact of funding on lots of aspects of local public health work.
David Fair: Well, and those are some decisions that we're going to have to look at as we progress through the rest of the year throughout the state of Michigan. But with Washtenaw County's masking requirements for schools still in place, are more of the new COVID cases being reported among those school age children?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: We do have a lot of activity happening in schools and, you know, by activity, I'm really meaning that's a reflection of the high transmission that's happening in our communities. So, our case rate, for example, for our five to 11 year olds has been higher. That weekly case rate has been higher than the overall case rate for a few weeks now, a couple of weeks now, since school started. So, certainly, that's impacted by school and gathering. It's not really clear that there is much transmission happening in the school setting. There's a lot of it, and that's intentional in terms of keeping those precautions in place, making sure we have masking and distance that we're doing, investigation and contact tracing to really prioritize and keep that in-person learning open. At the same time, we need to keep doing that to make sure that it stays that way to make sure kids can continue to have that in-person learning. But, overall and more broadly, we can continue to see a lot of activity, so that exposure is likely happening through gathering social activities. All those things that aren't restricted--excuse me--that are that are continuing to occur. So, our case rate all this week has continued to be, you know, 80 or 100 or more cases per day and a few hospitalizations continuing to come in.
David Fair: Do you find it hard to imagine how much worse it would or could be if masks were not required?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: You know, it's a little hard. I think, as many folks know, it's hard to separate out exactly the impact of the mask when we have multiple strategies in place. But that is also the point, right? We know that none of our strategies are 100 percent effective, and we need to layer them up for the best protection and very, very importantly, in the school setting, where there is a significant proportion of the population that cannot be vaccinated yet. Those protections become even more important. So. That's critical. We also obviously school is required and important for students, and there are folks in those environments not only that can't be vaccinated, but that are vulnerable to infection, even with vaccination. You know, so for all of those reasons where you want to keep those protections in place. There's a lot of evidence showing that they're effective at both reducing spread and preventing additional spread in that setting. So, again, when we see those cases come up, we can intervene and use those strategies and make sure that we're not seeing additional spread or hopefully not seeing much additional spread when we do have cases.
David Fair: We're talking with Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Health Department on 89 one WEMU. In the department's conversations with area hospitals in Medicare systems or medical care systems, are we seeing what some other parts of the state are? You know, Henry Ford reports it's had to close off beds because of understaffing caused in part by those voluntarily stepping away from work because of vaccine mandates. Parts of northern Michigan overrun with new cases and don't have the hospital space to accommodate all who have fallen ill. In the health department's conversations, are we seeing similar issues?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Well, definitely some of those issues are pervasive in the sense that, you know, health care capacity is limited and health care workers, you know, like all of us, responding to this pandemic are overwhelmed and overdone. So, all of those things are hard. And, you know, as you mentioned, there's additional requirements going into place that may change folks continuing to work in that field. I would say, you know, employment and getting additional workers is a problem, obviously, in a lot of fields, but might be reaching critical proportions in health care. We're lucky in this area that we do have more health care capacity than some other areas. That said, again, it's limited. So, are we seeing those strains? Absolutely. Are there instances where in some areas you might find your ability to get care for other reasons is limited because of the influx of COVID patients? Yes. I don't think we're hearing quite as much that capacity is as limited as it is in some other areas, like you gave the example of some northern Michigan areas, you know, they'll reach capacity quicker than we will here, but it is still very definitely an issue, both in terms of the workforce that's been overburdened for going on two years now, and, of course, the ability to do other types of care when COVID care continues to take up so many of the resources.
David Fair: And now we're moving toward the cold weather months where more people will be indoors more of the time, and that's where many of the group gatherings will take place. Is it anticipated late fall and winter will bring even higher rates of transmission, hospitalizations, and potentially deaths?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: You know, that's certainly a concern, because we do know that indoor transmission is a lot more likely. And the reason for that was additional precautions like masking to happen indoors. And the other thing that we are starting to see happen, we don't know if we'll have much of a flu season yet. Fortunately, the widespread use of our masks and distance really kept flu away or certainly contributed to keeping flu away last year. We are already seeing this year more occurrences of other types of viruses. RSV is circulating, you know, sicknesses are circulating in schools that aren't necessarily covered. And, again, you know, while the school environment has restrictions and precautions in place, pretty much nowhere else has those. So, there is gathering and contact happening and respiratory and other illnesses are spreading. So, if that's an indication, you know, we definitely may see lots of other things circulating this winter that we didn't see last year, and that would include flu. So, now is the time of year to get that flu vaccination on board, and that is also widely available in our community like COVID vaccine, and you can get them at the same time if you want. There's no recommended interval between those two vaccines. So, if you're looking at getting your first COVID vaccination or a booster, you can likely go ahead and get that at the same time or in close proximity to your flu vaccination.
David Fair: As you continue to point out, prevention is the best method. And with that in mind, the Washtenaw County Health Department is expanding efforts and options to more easily find and get vaccinated for the willing. What are you doing this week and moving forward?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Yes. Just this week, Tuesday, we started our expanded drive-thru COVID clinics, and those will continue all month. So, that means you can drive through here at the health department at 555 Towner for your COVID, either that initial vaccination or a booster if you had a Pfizer vaccination. And, hopefully not to confuse it, but there is also the potential for what's called an additional dose-a third dose--in the series for folks that had either Moderna or Pfizer, and that booster is six months out or for the Pfizer folks. So, we have those happening, excuse me, Tuesday through Friday from nine a.m.til 3:30, and then two Saturdays, the 16th and the 23rd from 10 a.m. to three p.m. We also continue to have a weekly walk-in clinic on Tuesday evenings from five to seven. So, we have lots of options for that COVID vaccine. There are also many, many options across the community, and folks should really find that opportunity that's easiest for them, whether that's your doctor's office or a pharmacy, whatever location is going to be most accessible. Go ahead and get it there, and there's lots of opportunities for that.
David Fair: As always, I appreciate the updates, and I'll look forward to our next conversation.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: Thank you so much. Take care.
David Fair: That is Susan Ringler-Cerniglia. Susan serves as communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department. For more information on today's conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR Station 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD One. Ypsilanti.
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