By Carol Stiffler

In 2022, COVID-19 did what scientists have predicted for a while: It became normal. It joined the ranks of viruses circulating in schools and public spaces, and wasn’t always the dominant one. RSV, influenza, and norovirus have caused more chaos than COVID in recent months. Masks became optional on airplanes and in some hospitals. Quarantining was reserved only for those actively sick with COVID; household members can now carry on with caution.

“COVID is going to be a seasonal thing,” said Kerry Ott, spokesperson for LMAS District Health Department. “Omicron really has embedded itself, and we’ll see it more seasonally. The same thing with influenza. That’s a problem, having two respiratory illnesses joining us for the same season.”

That makes COVID endemic–a regularly occurring disease–rather than pandemic, at this point.

“That doesn’t mean there won’t be new variants, or another huge spike at some time, but we know that influenza does that, too,” Ott said. “Some years influenza is very minor. Some years it is very deadly, especially for the elderly and for children. That’s why we get our shots.”

Ott said she and her family still mask up when visiting public spaces, and are fully vaccinated and boosted.

And after nearly three years of experience with the virus, much data and research is now available.

According to statistics released by the State of Michigan, Luce County had 857 cases and five deaths from COVID in 2021, and 518 cases and 11 deaths in 2022. That’s only 60% of the cases experienced in 2021, but 2.2 times as many deaths.

In nearby Mackinac County, there were 1372 cases and 21 deaths in 2021, and 1068 cases and 13 deaths in 2022. Mackinac County showed fewer cases and fewer deaths this year.

Schoolcraft County had 1,003 cases and five deaths in 2021, and 887 cases and nine deaths in 2022. These figures are comparative to Luce County; 2022 had 88% as many cases and 1.8 times as many deaths.

Marquette County, the U.P.’s most highly populated county, had 6,544 cases and 45 deaths in 2021; it had 7,401 cases and 63 deaths in 2022.

What could account for the differences? Population density would seem a likely factor, but local culture does, too. It became easier and easier to test for COVID at home, for those interested in determining their COVID status, and reporting results to local health departments is not required.

Vaccination has waned in all counties, but decidedly so in Luce. Only 49% of the county has had at least one COVID vaccine since the vaccines became available, and a total of 2,959 vaccines have been administered in Luce County to date. Of those who received the initial vaccinations, 62% later received a booster shot. Only 30% of Luce County has been fully vaccinated and then received a booster. Only Menominee County has a lower percentage of boosted residents, at 29.8%.

The declining vaccine rates may also point to the increased success and availability of COVID medications. Helen Newberry Joy Hospital in Newberry offers Paxlovid and monoclonal antibody treatments.

Free COVID testing is still available, and visitors to the LMAS District Health Department offices can pick up a free test that can be used to test for COVID, flu, and RSV all at once. Visitors can select which viruses they’d like to be tested for, and testing for all three is not required.

“It’s the best deal in town,” Ott said.

Ott has hopes that 2023 will be a better, healthier year.

“Let’s make 2023 a much better year by working together,” she said.