The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan were discovered on March 10, 2020. In one sense, not a lot has changed since then; the virus is still here, after all. But in another sense, a lot has changed. As of April 23, more than 17,000 people in the state have died and more than 825,000 people have been infected, according to the state. We now have vaccines but we also have variants.
For WDET’s series Canton Battles COVID, reporter Laura Herberg uses the lens of Canton to take a look at where we are now compared to the beginning of the pandemic.
Listen: Hear from Canton officials and residents on how they’re dealing with the pandemic right now.
‘Bombarded by Zombies’
It’s been more than a year since nurse Sherry Sculthorpe first saw the impact of COVID-19 at the Beaumont Medical Center - Canton where she works.
“I remember it was a Saturday and we felt like it was walking dead. We felt like we were just being bombarded by zombies because they were walking in so sick,” remembers Sculthorpe, now the clinical lead nurse at Beaumont Canton.
In the beginning, staff there — like many other medical centers — didn’t have the masks and hospital gowns they needed to properly protect themselves from the virus.
“No one has ever seen anything like this before. So how can you possibly prepare for it?” — Sherry Sculthorpe, nurse at Beaumont Medical Center - Canton
“It was it was scary. It was frustrating,” recalls Sculthorpe. “We were all caught with our pants down. No one has ever seen anything like this before. So how can you possibly prepare for it?”
Sculthorpe remembers the medical center being chaotic for months. But she also remembers something else from that time: Canton residents rallying around the hospital staff.
“We had a lot of support from the community where they were calling and asking what they can do for us. And they would send us food. We had some of the local churches making us masks, hand sanitizer. They were very, very supportive,” says Sculthorpe.
More than a year later, cases are surging in the state and Canton is no exception. To give some perspective, in April of last year, Canton was averaging about five cases per 100,000 residents per day. Now, that number has grown tenfold to an average of more than 50 cases per 100,000 per day, according to Michigan Health and Human Services data, presented by Dr. Emily Somers’ lab at the University of Michigan. Sure, a lot more people are getting tested now, but that’s an extreme jump.
No Longer Pandemic-Polite
Sculthorpe says this time around the hospital staff has personal protective equipment, but they’re exhausted. And while she’s not complaining, she says she has noticed they’re no longer receiving the same support from the public they did early on in the pandemic.
“Now it’s back to the them being mad at us and upset that they have to wait. So things definitely have gone back to pre-COVID,” she says.
People are behaving badly enough that Canton Township Supervisor Anne Marie Graham-Hudak made an appeal on YouTube asking for residents to be nicer to each other.
“I used the drive-through last week and the young lady was in tears at the window because of how she was being treated by some customers who were before me,” Graham-Hudak says in the video. “We are a better community than this. I’m asking you to be considerate to those who are out there to serve.”
Graham-Hudak says frontline workers in restaurants and stores are often short-staffed right now as employees get sick or are afraid to go in. But Canton’s main business strip is as busy as ever.
“When you drive down Ford Road you can see lines wrapped around all the drive-ups, you can see restaurants, or the parking lots, are full with people going in and getting takeout and hopefully being spaced appropriately inside,” says Graham-Hudak.
Vaccinations in Canton
It’s nice to see that businesses are booming, Graham-Hudak says, but she hopes that people are not only being patient but taking proper precautions. For the past year that’s meant wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands. Now, it also includes getting vaccinated.
Wayne County has not released data showing the percentage of residents who have been vaccinated in Canton, so Graham-Hudak says she doesn’t know what the rate is. But she says, her administration made the shot available to all township employees and about 60% signed up. The township has also partnered with Kroger Pharmacy and Wayne County to administer vaccines to Plymouth and Canton residents. As of Tuesday, April 13 that program had completed 11,000 shots, according to Canton Township’s website.
Outside the Kroger on Canton Center Road, 4 out of the 5 people I approach say they are vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated. The fifth person — Tom Andersen — says he has an appointment for the next day but he’s planning to cancel it.
“We know that the whole effort is an experiment, OK? People are getting ramifications,” says Andersen. “I just heard on the phone this morning that there were 250 people that had gotten all the shots are now COVID positive.”
Related: COVID-19 Vaccines Appear To Be Working. But Some Recent Headlines Lack Context and Cause Confusion.
To Anderson this sounds like 250 people got the virus from the vaccine. That’s not actually possible because the COVID-19 vaccines don’t contain the live virus. The state of Michigan did release data saying that 246 fully vaccinated residents ended up testing positive for the virus. The vaccine did not protect them from the coronavirus or some were likely infected before getting the vaccine. Health officials are studying those cases.
Even so, that means roughly .01% of all the people who’d received both shots got COVID-19, making the vaccine 99.99% effective. Drug trials did not show either vaccine being 100% effective so these findings should not be surprising.
The Beginning of the Tunnel
Wayne County Chief Health Officer Dr. Mouhanad Hammami says most people in Canton and the rest of Wayne County still appear to be following recommended guidelines — whether it be getting vaccinated or wearing masks.
“But we also know that there is an equal size of the population that are tired and they feel that with the news about more people getting vaccinated, with the restrictions being lifted, with schools that are opening, with restaurants that are opening, with the weather improving, now there are some that probably are letting their guard down,” says Hammami.
However, Hammami says, this is not the time for residents to relax.
“We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But we are still not out of the tunnel. We are still in the tunnel and probably still at the beginning of it,” he says.
The new variants that are present in Wayne County and the rest of the state make controlling the spread of the virus more difficult. Hammami says even if residents take the same precautions as before, there will still be more infections because the variants are more contagious. In other words, the status quo is no longer good enough. That goes for Canton and the rest of the state.