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Health, Science and Environment

Increase in COVID-19 cases adds pressure to public health departments

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Health Department of Northwest Michigan

Local health departments are getting squeezed by two competing priorities as cases of the novel coronavirus grow in Michigan: They’re trying to both track the new outbreaks and keep up the pace of vaccinations.

Newly identified cases of the virus in Michigan have nearly doubled in the last two weeks, as measured by the state’s seven-day moving average.Tracing those cases lets health departments notify people who were exposed that they need to quarantine, which can stop outbreaks from spreading even further.

But that takes resources that Lisa Peacock, the health officer for two local health departments in the northern Lower Peninsula, says aren’t always available.

“It’s a strain. For sure, you know. It’s a strain on public health capacity that I will never deny. It’s hard on our team, it’s hard on our staff, it’s hard on the community,” she said.

Health departments across Michigan were forced to ask infected people to do their own contact tracing when cases grew over the winter and surpassed their ability to keep up.

When cases were falling after the surge, Peacock said her departments could devote most of their efforts to vaccination. Now, she said, they need to refocus.

“We were able to shift some staff to our vaccination clinics, and then now that cases are going back up again, we have to shift some of those same staff back to case investigation and contact tracing and supporting that team,” she said.

Departments across the state are still holding vaccination clinics, and many are using new strategies to reach people who have not yet been immunized.

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan mailed tens of thousands of postcards to reach people over 50 years old. The LMAS District Health Department, which covers four counties just north of the Mackinac Bridge, took vaccines to remote islands by plane.

And in Peacock’s districts, public health workers are increasingly taking vaccines to people, instead of relying on those people to come to the health department.

“We went on-site to a manufacturing facility this week to hold a clinic at 6 in the morning and at 4 in the afternoon to catch all of their shifts,” Peacock said. “We just continually try to make it easy for people who want to get vaccinated, to get vaccinated.”

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