High School Sports, COVID-19 Variants Fueling Spike in New Cases in Michigan

Amid the rise in cases and hospitalizations, outdoor stadiums will be allowed to operate at 20% capacity, including Comerica Park.

New COVID-19 infections in the state are rising. It is being driven largely by high school sports and the presence of more-contagious COVID-19 variants in Michigan.

“A significant number of the recent cases have been attributed to high school athletics. Michigan now has at least 756 cases of the B.1.1.7. or UK variant, the second-most confirmed cases of any state behind Florida,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a news conference Friday.

Case rates have increased by 77% since mid-February — led by an increase in kids 10 to 19 years old. Local health departments identified more than 300 outbreaks tied to high school athletics in January and February.

“We’re not out of the woods yet. And we could potentially be at the beginning of another surge in Michigan.” — Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun

Despite the rise in cases and hospitalizations, outdoor stadiums will be allowed to operate at 20% capacity. Under previous rules, venues like Comerica Park were capped at 1,000 fans. Now about 8,200 people will be allowed in the stands for the Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day on April 1.

Another surge in Michigan?

With case rates rising, Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun issued a warning.

“I know it’s getting warmer. Vaccines are rolling out and people are tired of this pandemic. But we’re not out of the woods yet. And we could potentially be at the beginning of another surge in Michigan,” Khaldun said.

Starting next month state health officials will implement a testing regimen for high school athletes following several athletics-related outbreaks.

Khaldun said athletes ages 13 to 19 will need to get weekly testing in order to play.

“This is important because we’ve seen so many outbreaks associated with sports teams, and we want to identify any cases as soon as possible and prevent spread,” Khaldun said.

Wearing a mask and getting vaccinated will help slow this latest surge in cases and are effective against the COVID-19 variants, Whitmer said.

“If we all take our own personal responsibility here, we can keep these things reengaged, and do it safely and make progress toward the ultimate [goal], which would be spending Fourth of July together and enjoying it.”

No New Details on Departure of Health Department Director

When asked about the abrupt January resignation of the state health department director, Whitmer offered no new details.

A confidentiality clause in Robert Gordon’s separation agreement was lifted this week. He has alluded to policy disagreements contributing to his departure.

Whitmer said she has “nothing to hide” and that Michigan’s Republican-led legislature should focus on allocating billions in federal COVID-19 relief funding.

“I know that there are some people on the other side of the aisle, in particular, who would rather spend their time talking about personnel issues, which, you know, that’s their choice,” Whitmer said. “They can continue looking backward, but we are going to stay focused on moving forward — because we are still in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Senate Republicans critical of Whitmer’s pandemic response are weighing whether to block the confirmation of Elizabeth Hertel as the governor’s nominee to run the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Her appointment will stand unless the GOP-controlled Senate blocks it by March 23. 

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  • Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.