By Carol Stiffler

Between October 2-8, 249 new COVID cases were diagnosed within the LMAS Health District. That’s an average of nearly 36 per day, and provides far too much work for employees of the district to even attempt to complete thorough contact tracing in every instance. They’ve already announced that they can’t keep up, and will focus on school exposures.

The district has also recorded two COVID deaths, one in Alger County and another in Mackinac County, in the same time period.

It’s the kind of situation the district has been hoping to avoid, but one that easily surfaced in a district with pockets of high vaccine skepticism and deep-seated pandemic fatigue. Shoppers at area stores are rarely seen in masks, and requests for students to quarantine after exposures at school aren’t always honored. Critics on Facebook have been outspoken and hostile.

“We’ve hit a wall,” said Kerry Ott, spokesperson for the LMAS District Health Department. She describes the mood within the health department as “deflated”.

“It’s how we all feel,” she said.

Ott wants area residents to understand that the Delta variant is not the same as the virus that emerged in our communities last year. The Delta variant is far more contagious and is affecting even the youngest people. Yet much of the public is now taking far less precaution, like wearing masks in public, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home when they’re sick.

“We have babies, toddlers, preschoolers, elementary schoolers, junior high students, and high school students sick with COVID right now,” Ott said.

Vaccine rates in Luce County are among the state’s lowest – only 44.3 percent of Luce County residents are fully vaccinated. Mackinac’s rate is 64.3, Alger is 62.5, and Schoolcraft is 57.4.

Children younger than age 12 aren’t eligible for any COVID vaccine, which does make them extra vulnerable in school settings when masks aren’t required and social distancing isn’t practiced.

“We are urging people to wear masks,” Ott said. “We know they work. We know they’re effective, especially in indoor spaces. We need people to choose to do small things, and wearing a mask is one of those.”

Ott sees breakthrough cases – which occur after a vaccinated person contracts COVID – within the district but doesn’t want the public to lose patience with the vaccine.

“We know it can infect vaccinated people,” she said, “but they are less likely to get hospitalized and die. I consider that a benefit.”

Ott notes the vaccine, while being effective a majority of the time, still helps reduce illness much like a flu vaccine does for someone who gets the flu vaccine and still contracts the flu. Even though the flu vaccine is only ever partially effective, it is still recommended each year in part for that reason.

Newberry resident Kathy Dzelak, who is fully vaccinated, recently returned from a trip to Alaska. She believes that somewhere in the journey back home, through five airports and on several planes, she caught COVID. When she began to feel symptoms of a head cold a few days after returning home, she got tested. It was positive.

Dzelak went to Helen Newberry Joy Hospital the next day for an infusion of monoclonal antibodies, now one of the most effective treatments against the virus when given early in the illness. During the 15-20 minute infusion, which her husband also received as a precaution, the Dzelaks shared the room with another infusion patient. Their fellow COVID patient was an unvaccinated man who was extremely sick.

“He had a very bad cough, and was throwing up. He was definitely a lot sicker than I was,” Dzelak said. “I felt I was in a lot better shape than he was… If I had not had the vaccine, I am sure I would have been as sick as he was, if not worse, given my age.”

Dzelak said she told nurses she thought the man should be in the hospital, and she still worries about him. She recovered quickly after the antibody treatment, and said her head seemed to clear up immediately. She is now out of her required quarantine period, and is feeling well.

“All I know is, I’m glad I got vaccinated,” Dzelak said.

Vaccination is an ongoing hurdle for the team at LMAS, though Ott said the new federal vaccine mandate for large companies has caused a trickle of vaccinations in the area.

LMAS will keep working to protect the health of their four counties, Ott said, even though their job has made them unpopular with some people.

“We will keep doing what is right. We will keep doing what is necessary to keep and protect the health of everyone that is living in and visiting our four counties,” she said. “But we need help. Recognize this is not last year’s COVID. Start masking up in public places.”

Hospital report

COVID patients as of October 7, 2021

Helen Newberry Joy Hospital: 2
Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital: 1
Munising Memorial Hospital:
Mackinac Straits Hospital: 1
OSF St. Francis: 6, 4 in ICU
War Memorial Hospital: 16, 3 in ICU
UP Health Systems – Marquette: 18, 5 in ICU
McLaren – Petoskey:17; 10 in ICU