A recent spike in COVID-19 cases tied almost exclusively to parties near Michigan State University has forced local health officials into crisis mode as Ingham County quickly becomes the top coronavirus hotspot in Michigan, according to data tracked by state officials.
“It’s a crisis at this point. We were tracking some of the best numbers in the state. Now, we have the worst,” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail. “This is the biggest spike we’ve seen. If you look at the charts, it’s like nothing even happened in March, April or May. It’s just astonishing, just startling.”
Since March, Ingham County has edged down its average caseload to seven or eight new COVID-19 cases each day — a standardized rate of about 25 daily cases per million residents. Over the last two weeks, however, that rate has skyrocketed eightfold to about 200 daily cases per million residents — a new two-week countywide average of about 60 new cases per day.
The recent uptick, which Vail said is largely attributed to off-campus parties in East Lansing, means Ingham County, as of last week, is now tracking the highest daily case rate in Michigan.
It’s also getting worse. Vail tallied 980 cases in Ingham County — including more than 550 now at MSU — since Sept. 1. That’s almost 40% of the cases detected since March in just two weeks. And on campus, more than 15% of tests in the last two weeks have come back positive.
“I don’t have the words to describe the severity of what’s happening right now,” Vail added.
“This trend has been going up for weeks, but I would not have predicted it would be this bad.”
So how did we get here?
About two weeks before the fall semester, MSU officials followed suit with other universities nationwide and announced a shift to virtual instruction — shuttering most residential halls and discouraging more than 10,000 of its students from coming back to East Lansing this fall.
But for most students, the news arrived far too late to make much of a difference.
Vail said most students have been trapped in long-term lease agreements for months, leaving them little if no opportunity to find other arrangements should they want to leave the city. Others simply wanted to stay in East Lansing. Collegetown is still Collegetown, even without college.
The expectation of house parties — and the actual parties that followed in recent weeks — triggered several preventative measures from both Ingham County and the city of East Lansing.
Outdoor gatherings were restricted to 25 people across most of the city. Indoor gatherings, though much more difficult to detect, were limited to 10 people. Face masks were also mandated both indoors and out across MSU’s campus and much of downtown East Lansing.
The Ingham County Board of Commissioners also recently pushed forward a resolution that would ramp up civil fines to up to $1,000 for violations of pandemic-related health department orders — including restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings and face mask requirements.
Still, cases climbed even as students pushed their parties onto lawns, porches and patios.
Over last weekend and 300 cases later, Vail issued a “strong recommendation” that all MSU students living near campus immediately quarantine themselves to contain community spread.
That recommendation remains in effect through Sept. 26. And while not an emergency order, Vail had warned that more stringent and mandatory restrictions could be en route. MSU officials are also weighing suspensions for several allegedly rule-breaking students.
“None of it is perfect. We know that. We just keep putting in additional measures on top of additional measures. If those don’t work, we’ll do more,” Vail said. “It’s like OK: What do we do next? We’re starting to run out of tools in the toolbox. What we need is some real cooperation.”
By Monday, those enhanced restrictions couldn’t wait. Mandatory quarantines were necessary.
Several dozen people living in 28 large rental homes across East Lansing — including 21 fraternity and sorority houses — must now remain in quarantine through Sept. 28, Vail said. Each of them involves a confirmed COVID-19 case or viral exposure among those living inside.
“We were doing so well. Our cases were low. This has to stop,” Vail added. “It’s going to put the entire community at risk. These students might think they’re just infecting each other, but eventually it leaves that circle, starts to spread and soon the entire community feels an impact.”
During quarantine, guests cannot enter those homes unless providing an essential service. Residents must also remain inside unless working an essential job, seeking medical care or purchasing supplies essential to health and safety that cannot otherwise be delivered.
In accordance with state law, a willful violation of the order could be punishable by a misdemeanor, a six-month stint in the Ingham County jail and a fine of up to $200. And East Lansing Police can also physically arrest those caught violating the recent quarantine mandate.
“I can’t deny people things that sustain their lives,” Vail added. “They’re able to go out and get medication, food, go to doctor’s appointments, go to critical jobs if they need work to survive. We’re hoping that we have some adults in the house that are going to help us with that, because if a new case erupts in these houses, all that’s going to do is extend the quarantine.”
Those caught violating the quarantine either by local cops or health officials will face prosecution, Vail warned. Health officials also plan to continuously add to the list of 30 properties as necessary. If that doesn’t work, additional crowd control restrictions could be near.
“The only thing I can think to do next is restrict gathering sizes even further,” Vail said.
Meanwhile, misinformation is fierce, Vail explained. Younger patients are statistically less likely to face severe health complications from COVID-19. And without more context, that data is leading many students to recklessly disregard the dangers of social gatherings, she added.
The MSU Interfraternity Council, for example, voted last month against a ban on parties that could attract crowds. The majority of those who voted against it are now in mandatory quarantine.
“They may think they’re just infecting each other, but eventually it leaves that circle, starts to spread in the community and older people and those with health complications will die,” Vail said. “Any of these young people could also have some serious medical consequences and they’re being very nonchalant about it, almost to the extent of intentionally trying to get infected.”
So what’s the outlook? Vail doesn’t see much silver lining. She’s just focused on curbing an outbreak already certain to translate to more deaths by October and November. Only three people were hospitalized with COVID-19 this week, but she expects a winter surge.
“Ultimately, this will hop through the community until we have people of color, elderly people and people with serious health conditions who get sick and die. If students don’t see that happening, it can be hard to get the message through to them,” Vail said. “We need to get that out there. People have long needed to take this seriously. Wear masks. Protect yourselves. Be aware.”