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Omicron cases arrive in Michigan as the state is still dealing with delta variant

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

All right, we now go to Michigan, where Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian is the state's chief medical executive. Doctor, welcome.

NATASHA BAGDASARIAN: Thank you for having me on this morning.

MARTINEZ: OK, so what's the situation like in Michigan, and how is COVID and omicron showing up in your communities?

BAGDASARIAN: Well, we're in a very difficult position in Michigan because we are still in the midst of our delta variant surge. What we saw in Michigan was a sustained rise in cases that's actually been continuing since September. Cases started going up after schools reopened, and they have continued. And we've actually seen case rates and hospitalization rates that have been some of the highest since we've seen - since the beginning of the pandemic. So we are in a bad position because it's still the middle of our delta variant surge, and hospitals are quite overwhelmed.

MARTINEZ: What do you think it is, Doctor, about Michigan? It just seems like, you know, Michigan has been the focal point almost in the United States when it comes to all this.

BAGDASARIAN: Well, some people think of Michigan as being the bellwether for what happens in the Northern states. And we have seen Michigan sort of setting the precedent for what's going to happen in some of our neighboring states. I think that what we're specifically seeing in Michigan is lower vaccination rates. So our vaccination rates are lower than national averages. There is lower compliance with masking. For whatever reason, our communities are not excited about continuing with masking. And then there's colder weather driving more people indoors. So we are still reeling from the effects of delta because we saw delta really surge with those factors coming together, and omicron is coming at a very inopportune time for us.

MARTINEZ: Does Michigan need a state mandate on vaccinations?

BAGDASARIAN: You know, in Michigan, we are working on a variety of things. We've talked about layered mitigation strategies since the beginning of the pandemic. And so there are things that we need locally and there are things that we need nationally. So locally, we need vaccine uptake. One of the biggest issues that we see is lower vaccine uptake in certain communities and in certain age groups, and that vaccine inequity is really driving this pandemic to hit some communities very hard. We're seeing the same thing with mask guidelines. There are some communities that are following mask guidelines very well and some that are not. But nationally, there are some tools that we need as well - testing, for example, and therapeutics. We're losing some of our most valuable therapeutics again at a very, very difficult time for us.

MARTINEZ: On those national tools, you have gotten some federal support for hospitals in your state that are in danger of being overwhelmed. The president, though, says he expects state-level solutions. Do you feel, Doctor, like Michigan needs more from the federal government?

BAGDASARIAN: Well, there are certainly resources that we need from the federal government. You know, we were very grateful for the four teams that were sent to our hospitals to support staffing issues, but we understand that this is a national issue. Hospitals around the country are being hit hard by staffing issues.

But the national resources that we truly need are an increase in over-the-counter tests. There have been supply chain constraints for months now. We need enough for every American to test before every large gathering, every large event, every time they're symptomatic, and we simply don't have that right now. And then therapeutics, as well. There's not much we can do at the state level to increase the supply of therapeutics. We have one monoclonal antibody that's still active against omicron, but very limited numbers. And oral antivirals will really be the key. So we're hoping that our federal partners can shore up the supply of those oral antivirals.

MARTINEZ: Now, as we just heard, the CDC is revising its guidance and cutting the recommendation - isolation time for asymptomatic people who test positive. Doctor, given the number of cases that you're dealing right - with right now in Michigan, does that feel like a safe number to you, cutting it from 10 to five?

BAGDASARIAN: Well, we know that most transmission occurs early on in the course of illness. We know that there's a lot of transmission that occurs when people are, in fact, pre-symptomatic. But what I'm more concerned about in places like Michigan are people who are completely disregarding all public health advice at all, people who are continuing on with their lives as though there is no pandemic. And those individuals are people who are unvaccinated, who are not testing and who are going about their lives. I think that people who are adhering to public health guidance - the ones who are actually reading these guidelines that are coming out and taking advice and staying home and wearing their mask - that's not where the majority of transmission is occurring.

MARTINEZ: Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the state of Michigan, thank you very much for taking the time.

BAGDASARIAN: Thanks for having me on today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.