Retrospective: A Year of Covid in East Lansing

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

A sign at the MSU Pavilion vaccine site.

A little over a year ago, on Mar. 10, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told Michiganders that two cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed in Michigan. The following day, Michigan State University President Sam Stanley announced that nearly all courses at MSU would move to online and encouraged students to return home. East Lansing Public Schools also suddenly closed, following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order to do so.

In short order, East Lansing residents learned about masking and social distancing while dealing with shortages of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and various grocery items. Places normally open to the public closed, and then some reopened, in many cases repeating the challenging cycle over the past year.

Although East Lansing was not hit as hard as other parts of the state in March and April of 2020, local hospitals here did experience a surge. But by June, case numbers and hospitalizations had dropped significantly, even hitting zero on a few days. (You can find data for Ingham County here.)

Image courtesy of the Ingham County Health Department.

Graph demonstrating the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 in the Greater Lansing area.

As metrics improved across the state, some businesses, including bars and restaurants, began to reopen. In June 2020, ELi tracked an outbreak related to Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub. The number of cases associated with that outbreak and its effects on the community might ultimately seem relatively small in retrospect after the case-count surges that would come in the fall and winter.

But Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail has suggested that the outbreak, which initially involved young people who had visited the bar in June, increased community spread, resulting weeks later in an uptick of hospitalizations and death.

The same pattern occurred on a grander scale when MSU students returned to the area in the fall, despite MSU President Sam Stanley announcing in mid-August that most courses would still be held online, changing course from the University’s May decision to bring students back on campus for the fall. Students partied, cases rose, and an increase in hospitalizations and deaths followed.

To date, East Lansing’s 48823 zip code has the most cumulative cases of Covid-19 and the highest number of deaths in Ingham County. Many of the deaths have been associated with elder care facilities, according to Vail.

Images courtesy of Ingham County Health Department.

The graph on the left shows death by zip code in Ingham County. The chart on the right provides case counts.

The number of new cases and hospitalizations has slowed in the last few weeks, but, according to Vail, a drop in hospitalizations has sometimes been a result of those hospitalized dying.

The drop in cases from the worst surge this winter leaves us today with numbers close to where we were when the pandemic was taking off in Spring 2020, not our lowest point in early June.

Image courtesy of Ingham County Health Department.

The above graph illustrates case counts on specific dates.

Currently, daily case counts in Ingham tend to be slightly more than 40 cases a day as opposed to 30 in mid to late February. Approximately 7 percent of Covid-19 tests come back positive, although it was as high as 16 percent on Mar. 14.

Education has gradually moved back toward in-person, but with considerable debate about what is safe.

As noted above, MSU and East Lansing Public Schools closed in mid-March 2020 to prevent community spread. Both educational systems have since faced bumpy roads when trying to return to in-person learning.

Following the large spike of cases among students in the fall, in January 2021, the university issued a temporary enhanced social distancing order, requiring on-campus students to remain in the dorms with exceptions for class, work, and procuring food. The infection trend was reversed.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

A banner on MSU’s campus, encouraging adherence to public health measures.

On Mar. 5, MSU announced that 75 percent of classes for Fall 2021 will have some in-person component, and first-year students will be eligible to live on campus. Fall sports will most likely have spectators, although the campus community may still need to abide by public health guidelines.

But that doesn’t mean things are going to be easily predictable; just this week, MSU acknowledged that the U.K. variant is present on campus. MSU has effectively eliminated Spring Break to try to minimize the chances of viral spread through student travel.

For ELPS, the debate over reopening for the 2020-2021 school year began in May 2020, and after many twists and turns, nearly half of ELPS students returned to in-person learning on Mar. 1, 2021.

Thoughts on the return have been divided. Some have applauded the move, even if they felt it was too late, because they felt that online learning was not working for many students. Others have voiced concerns that the return could yet lead to increased community spread. Those concerned with community spread have pointed to the possibility of crowding in classrooms and ventilation systems that are not capable of filtering Covid-19.

At its Mar. 8, 2021, meeting, the ELPS Board of Education voted in favor of allocating money to improve ventilation systems at East Lansing High School and McDonald Middle School. The work will take about 12-weeks and will most likely be completed over the summer.

Families currently engaging in virtual education will have the option of returning to in-person learning after Spring Break (April 2-11). The district recommends – but is not requiring – that families traveling out of state or internationally quarantine for 10 days upon return. The district will also provide rapid antigen testing for those who traveled before a return to the classroom.

On Friday, Mar. 19, the School Board voted to approve a plan to increase the number of hours spent in-person at the middle and high school level in order to be eligible for state aid that requires that schools include at least 20 hours of in-person instruction per week.

Previously, in-person students only met in the buildings Tuesday through Friday and met Mondays virtually. Now, in-person students will have the option of meeting in-person on Monday, and the school day has been extended for 15 minutes.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

A student prepares to return to school.

Shutdowns and concerns over contracting Covid-19 have hurt many small businesses, and some owners have been left to balance safety and survival. The City has funded several programs to bring people downtown, in part through crowdfunding and a matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Now, we are moving closer to reaching much lower public health risk through vaccinations, but the vaccine rollout has left many confused.

The elderly, people of color, and those with underlying health conditions in this area and across the United States have been more susceptible to the worst effects of Covid-19, and the vaccination rollout was intended to get the most vulnerable vaccinated first.

When vaccines first became available, Ingham County Health Department and other vaccine providers were required to provide vaccinations only to those in specific priority groups. Vaccines were first offered to frontline medical professionals, and then to senior citizens over age 70. The Health Department then changed the cutoff to seniors age 65 and older, citing the desire to comply with state guidelines that take life-expectancy disparities into account.

“There is inequity in life expectancy across Ingham County,” wrote the Health Department’s Public Information Officer Amanda Darche to ELi. “People in some areas of our county can expect to live a full decade longer than those residing in other areas of the county. By giving access to only older seniors, we would be prioritizing residents of wealthier, healthier zip codes, which would exacerbate the disparity.”

Initially, ELi heard from readers who felt frustrated by the scarcity of the vaccine and the confusing communication from vaccine providers. Now, the number of vaccines available has expanded, but news on the rollout has changed rapidly, still leaving many confused.

On Mar. 12 Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced that every Michigander will be eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine on April 5. Those over age 50, those 16 and older with underlying conditions and some essential workers are eligible beginning on Mar. 22.

More vaccines have become available in our area. According to Darche, the drive-through vaccine clinic at the Pavilion now operates four to five days a week, and the Health Department has opened new locations throughout the County – including the fairgrounds in Mason – and is continuing to organize pop-up clinics.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

A volunteer ready to direct traffic at the MSU Pavilion vaccination site run by the Ingham County Health Department.

The Health Department recently announced that Ingham residents can make appointments at its community health centers. Darche told ELi the decision to expand eligibility there was made after most patients over age 50 had been vaccinated.

But, for many who want to be vaccinated, it often appears that vaccine information comes through connections and keeping an ear to the ground.

On the evening of Mar. 16, 2021, Sparrow suddenly opened its vaccine appointment portal to everyone in the region age 16 and older. No media release was provided. Instead, a personal contact informed ELi’s Managing Editor, who independently confirmed it and then ran a story.

Vaccines are available elsewhere, too, and you can check out ELi’s list here.

What will the next year bring for our community, including our businesses, City government, and schools? Whatever it does, the ELi reporting team is committed to keeping you informed.

ELi’s reporting continues to be made possible by our generous sponsors. You are invited to join them today! Thank you!

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