COVID-19 Delivers North Michigan County

Otsego County Emergency Medical Services chief Jon Deming tried to prepare his northern Michigan staff for something nasty, a school shooting with mass casualties or a school bus crash.

But COVID-19 is different, he said.

“Never in my life could I have imagined this,” said Deming, who is 66 and has worked in emergency response for nearly 50 years. “It’s just crazy. … Life was good about two weeks ago.”

Deming’s home county, Otsego, a tourist destination and rural area that sits up in northern Lower Michigan, finds itself entrenched in the fight against the coronavirus. While Metro Detroit is center stage with 80% of the state’s cases, Otsego County officials say what’s happening in their community shows how quickly the virus can spread anywhere.

The county – its seat is Gaylord – has a population of around 24,500. But its 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 through Friday afternoon ranked it behind five highly populated counties for the most cases per capita. The top five are Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw and Genesee counties.

The smallest of the five, Washtenaw, includes the University of Michigan and a population of over 360,000.

While the 20 cases in Otsego County may seem small compared to the thousands of cases in metro Detroit, it would take a few serious cases of COVID-19 to overwhelm the health care system in rural northern Michigan, officials said. county.

COVID-19 patients in the Otsego area will primarily be cared for at the 71-bed Munson Healthcare Grayling Hospital, said Dianne Michalek, a spokeswoman for Munson Healthcare. If Grayling Hospital became overcrowded, Munson would open COVID-19 units at other facilities in her system, she said.

Otsego County Emergency Medical Services has approximately 36 employees. One of those employees already has COVID-19 and is on a ventilator in the hospital, Deming said. Two other employees tested positive but were not hospitalized, he said.

A total of five employees have been off work this week because they had symptoms, Deming said on Friday. And another employee temporarily left because she has a family and didn’t want to risk contracting the virus, he said.

Countywide, Otsego had one confirmed case per 1,233 residents through Friday. Washtenaw had 477 cases in total confirmed cases for a rate per inhabitant of one confirmed case for 770 inhabitants.

Kent County, home to Michigan’s second-largest city, Grand Rapids, has one case for every 4,830 residents. Ingham County, home to Lansing, has one case for about 1,923 residents.

The situation shows how the coronavirus can spread across all geographies, said Frank Claeys, Gaylord Police Chief who is helping manage the city’s response.

“It’s something that knows no lines,” Claeys said. “All it takes is one person to have it. And there’s easy community transmission.

Virus hits area in six days

The Northwestern Michigan Health Department disclosed the first case of COVID-19 in Otsego County on March 16, six days after the first cases were reported across Michigan.

The Otsego County case appeared in state data on March 17, making it one of the first 15 counties to have a confirmed case.

Gaylord’s Aaron Pegg had traveled overseas, going on a mission trip to Ethiopia through his church. Pegg did interviews with local media about his experiences and posted videos on Facebook, explaining that when he returned home on March 6, he thought he was fine.

Five days later, Pegg said he began experiencing symptoms, fever, sore throat, body aches and chills. He described it as “weak flu” in a Facebook video. He went to the emergency room and was tested for COVID-19. On March 16, he found out he was positive.

Pegg said he had essentially overcome his symptoms two days earlier.

“People who I consider brothers and sisters caught the virus from me and were able to fight it off,” he said in a video. “I am grateful that so far there have been no deaths from the corona tree that have separated from me. People have not had serious hospitalizations from my corona tree so far. But I will say it has been a burden.

“I’m sure my team members also felt the burden of being seen as the people who brought this thing to Northern Michigan, a community we love.”

Claeys, Gaylord’s police chief, said that to his knowledge, no one else who went on the mission trip has tested positive for the virus. Dr. Joshua Meyerson, medical director for the Northwest Michigan Health Department, said there appeared to be multiple clusters of the virus, with some people in the county simply not sure how they caught it.

“Everyone involved did everything they were supposed to do,” Meyerson said.

Individuals let doctors know they were sick early on, allowing officials to identify cases earlier, he said.

On March 23, the Health Department flagged Bennethum’s Northern Inn, a restaurant in Gaylord, as a possible site where there was “significant exposure” to the virus. People who were in the restaurant from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on March 12 and from 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on March 14 “should self-monitor for 14 days” from the date of exposure, the department said.

The situation in Gaylord shows why people should follow social distancing measures wherever they are in the state, Meyerson said.

“You won’t get away with coming here,” he said.

Strained emergency services

Gaylord City Manager Joseph Duff said he was unable to specifically explain why Otsego County has more cases than other similarly sized counties in the state.

For example, the two counties closest to Otsego in terms of population are Manistee and Roscommon counties. They each had one and two cases, respectively, according to state data on Friday.

Duff said he couldn’t point to a single individual as the reason the virus spread through the county. But he guessed the spread might have something to do with the regional nature of the area with people coming from surrounding counties to shop at Gaylord’s biggest retailer.

“We just don’t know why the reasons are that our numbers are higher than others in our surrounding area,” Duff said.

Gaylord is along the Interstate 75 corridor, Dr. Janelle Hendrian, chief medical officer of Munson Healthcare Otsego Memorial Hospital, noted in a statement. People from across the state, including northern Michigan, stop in the area for food and supplies, she said.

“Due to the nature of our city and the wide use of our amenities, it is theoretically possible that we have more exposure opportunities than we realize,” Hendrian added.

“We are seeing holiday cottages, which are normally vacant at this time of year, fully occupied,” she continued. “People are flooding in from the more densely populated cities in the north. Some of these people are coming from areas where the burden of COVID-19 is significant.”

Whatever the reason, the virus is already affecting emergency response in the county. With five employees not working due to symptoms, Deming said the county, which normally uses three to four vehicles to respond to issues per day, is now using two.

Deming said he did not know how his employees could have contracted the virus. But he said they were transporting “really sick people”.

“I have great people,” Deming said of his team. “I just have to get them through this.”

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