Calhoun County

Mask up: Calhoun County sees steep spike in COVID-19 cases, highest since pandemic started

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. if you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

A spike in COVID-19 cases in Calhoun County surprised local public health officials who say that state-mandated guidelines to wear masks and maintain physical distance remain in play despite a ruling Friday from the Michigan Supreme Court which ruled against the extension of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s to extend emergency declarations designed to stop the spread.

Between Sept. 24 and Oct. 1, 2020, the total number of confirmed cases jumped from 1,140 to 1,352 locally, an average of more than 30 new cases each day, the county’s highest spike on record since the pandemic began, making it the fastest rate of spread of any county in Michigan’s lower peninsula.

On Monday, Robert Gordon, Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), signed and issued an epidemic order to maintain safety rules struck down by the state’s Supreme Court ruling which goes into effect on October 30.

Robert Gordon, Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “It’s not going to be as in-depth as some of the Executive Orders were, but MDHHS had already issued orders. The last one issued in July was valid until (Monday) night (Oct. 5),” says Eric Pessel, Calhoun County Public Health Officer. “Those of us in Public Health knew those orders were out there and valid and it’s something people are waking up to today (Tuesday).”

If the ruling went into effect immediately, up to 830,000 Michigan workers and their families could lose crucial unemployment benefits, according to a press release issued Monday by Whitmer’s office. “Moreover, critical measures meant to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus would also immediately lapse,” the release says.

MDHHS Director Robert Gordon says in the release that “The Supreme Court’s ruling raises several legal questions that we are still reviewing. While we are moving swiftly, this transition will take time. Make no mistake, Governor Whitmer will continue using every tool at her disposal to keep Michigan families, frontline workers, and small businesses safe from this deadly virus. The same is true for our department. We will use every statutory tool available to protect our state employees and the residents we serve.”
The reality, Pessel says, is that COVID-19 is still an issue.

“It’s a pandemic worldwide and because of that there needs to be some procedures in place to protect people from getting this virus,” Pessel says. “What we saw (Monday) night is what the really important measures are to protect ourselves and keep hospitalizations down so that we are able to continue to function as a county.”

State Rep. Jim Haadsma, (D-Calhoun County), calls the spike in cases in Calhoun County “worrisome.” He says the 4-3 Supreme Court ruling was essentially a declaratory statement that does not give anyone “license to be careless at this point.”

The ruling came on the same day that President Donald Trump disclosed that he had tested positive for the Coronavirus. Haadsma says he is hopeful that state lawmakers have a plan and will continue on with many of the “commons sense” recommendations put forward by Whitmer’s team of experts.

“Much of the rules and procedures remain intact by the MDHHS orders which mirror the Governor’s Executive Orders,” Haadsma says. “I did not sense that the sky was falling when we first learned that the Supreme Court had decided this case last Friday. I didn’t sense that all of a sudden people in our community were no longer complying with mask requirements or social distancing. Most of us are going to want to ensure that we’re continuing to be in compliance.”

During the county’s Joint Information Center call on Sept. 30, county health officials reported that there had been 202 more cases of COVID-19 identified during the previous week, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 1,324. The number of new cases was higher than what had been seen in April during the height of the pandemic.

Pessel says this increase surprised him “because we’ve tracked this stuff daily and we went through a whole summer of people at gatherings and while we have warned and spoken in many different venues to whoever would listen about how to protect yourself, we were still pretty much in control over the summer.

Calhoun County Board Chairman Steve Frisbie“Then we run into pre-fall and we’re not all staying indoors yet and we’re seeing this surge and it’s not associated with going back to school, which is the only difference from the end of August to the month of September. That’s the surprising thing. Something has happened and I can only suspect that it’s people starting to let their guard down and attending gatherings and functions that are putting them into situations of exposure and not putting into practice the guidelines.”

Calhoun County Board Chairman Steve Frisbie says he thinks increased testing countywide contributed to the higher numbers.

“There’s an awful lot more testing going on and because of that we’re bound to catch more cases,” Frisbie says. “Most of these positive tests were the result of large gatherings of people who let their guard down a little bit.

“The other thing that goes along with this is that hospitalizations have only ticked up very slightly. A lot of these people are asymptomatic and that’s proven to be much of the case in places like Florida and Texas.”

Frisbie says people can and should protect themselves from potential exposure or spread whenever possible as public health officials have been saying all along.

Pessel says he thinks the majority of people are continuing to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines. For those who don’t, it’s an opportunity to educate them.

As a public health agency charged with enforcing these guidelines, Pessel says, “We’re trying to focus on stopping the spread of this and reaching out to people with actual cases and every minute we have to spend enforcing the rules and orders takes away from our ability to do that contact tracing.

“There’s going to be some policing of themselves. We’ve got to really talk about the cultural norm. ‘No mask, no shoes, no service’ seems like a catchphrase, but it’s just as simple as that.”

Haadsma says he thinks that the majority of people are policing themselves and looking out for their fellow community members.

“Police agencies and the sheriff’s department are already tasked with other obligations and they don’t have the manpower to police whether people wearing masks or restaurants are mandating compliance,” he says.

The fatigue factor surrounding all of this also is real and something Pessel understands, but he says it has to continue.

“We’re in the second-quarter of an eight-quarter game and we have to wrap our heads around that. It’s something we have to continue to do for the foreseeable future,” Pessel says. “We have to do it to protect our families and our neighbors. We will get to the other side and we will do it together and that has to be the positive message in this.”  
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.