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COVID-19 cases climb sharply in rural UP health district

Frontline UPdates
A frame from a video shared by a consortium of health care workers urges residents to get vaccinated, wear masks in public spaces and avoid indoor gatherings.

A health district in the eastern part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has seen one of the state’s fastest increases in COVID-19 cases over the last few months.

The LMAS District Health Department, which covers Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft counties, went from 12 new COVID-19 cases in July to more than 300 cases in just the first half of September, said health district spokesperson Kerry Ott.

The spike is a product of the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus that’s recently taken hold in the region, Ott said.

That variant took longer to establish itself in the largely rural U.P. than in other parts of the state, she said. “The death rate right now in September is low, but we’re only just over a month into having the Delta variant prevalent in our area.”

Ott’s district covers four counties, but does not have any intensive care beds. As a result, she said, desperately sick patients need to wait for care.

“We have patients who have been hospitalized who had to wait to be transferred out of our small area until a bed opened up in an ICU somewhere else in the state of Michigan or sometimes Wisconsin,” said Ott.

Pleas for people to get vaccinated, or at least wear masks and avoid indoor gatherings, have gone largely unheeded recently, she said.

Earlier in the pandemic, health department staff said they encountered occasional opposition, but normally people were glad to accept their guidance. Early this year, the LMAS district had one of the highest vaccination rates in Michigan.

That’s no longer the case, said Ott. She said she feels defeated trying to convince people to think beyond themselves, but she’s still trying.

“Maybe you’re not in a high-risk group, but the goal is to limit your chances of transmitting the virus to someone who is. You never know when you give it to someone who might die,” she said.

“We understand COVID fatigue. We understand the thought that this is taking freedom away from people, but if we’re really going to embrace the rights we have in this nation, we have to embrace the responsibilities that go along with it,” said Ott.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.