Director supports COVID, flu center

MARQUETTE — Dr. Bob Lorinser, medical director of the Marquette County Health Department, discussed what he called “critical concerns” in a Friday memo to media and medical providers.

Up to 75% of COVID-19 transmission occurs before the onset of symptoms, he said, and vaccination “markedly” reduces the chances of a person becoming infected and transmitting COVID. Also, he noted that a sizable portion of patients hospitalized receive their first diagnosis of COVID at the time of their admission.

“This highlights the lack of readily available and accepted testing and missed opportunity to avoid hospitalization and transmission to others,” Lorinser wrote. He said testing should be readily available and free, including over-the-counter tests.

Lorinser also said monoclonal antibodies, if given to high-risk patients shortly after being diagnosed, decreases their chances of hospitalization and death around 70% to 80% from their baseline risk.

Lorinser suggests people get vaccinated.

“There shouldn’t be any reason to have to wait for more than two days if you attempt to be vaccinated, whether it is obtained from your local pharmacy, your medical provider or the health department,” he said. “Currently, I am hearing waits of weeks. This is unacceptable.”

Lorinser suggested individuals isolate themselves if they test positive, inform their contacts to get tested and, if at a high risk for hospitalization, contact their medical providers and consider treatment with monoclonal antibodies.

“I support a free, readily available COVID and influenza center within our community that can provide testing, medical evaluation, education, vaccinations and treatment with monoclonal antibodies for COVID, open seven days a week in a permanently accessible location with hours of operation to meet the demands as long as it is warranted,” Lorinser said. “We are exploring this with our community partners to see if this is possible.”

Aspirus hospitals see surge

Hospitals and health systems across the region are experiencing high patient volumes and capacity challenges during the current COVID-19 surge. Across the Aspirus Health system — which includes 17 hospitals from Portage, Wisconsin, to Laurium — patient volumes across all care settings are high, Aspirus Health announced on Friday.

On Friday, 135 COVID-positive patients were occupying 26% of Aspirus inpatient beds. The seven-day average of COVID-positive inpatients across Aspirus rose to 131 from 103 on Nov. 22. The weekly positivity rate among COVID-19 tests processed by Aspirus also has risen to above 22%.

This high level of COVID-19 activity in the region is stressing health systems and their ability to also care for the non-COVID needs of communities, Aspirus said.

“We have not had to turn patients away,” said Jeff Wicklander, Aspirus senior vice president and Aspirus Wausau Hospital president, in a statement. “However, patients are having to wait. Overall, our capacity is over 95%. When we look at our critical care, we are near capacity, if not at capacity, several days of the week.”

Aspirus leverages its system wherever possible to provide the appropriate level of care for each patient, it said. This includes transferring within its system to keep patients local; shifting resources and staffing across departments and facilities; and using its home health division to keep people out of the hospital.

“The good news is that we have a very comprehensive system,” Wicklander said. “The tricky part is that we are very, very busy. We’ve been focused on monoclonal antibody therapy, which has been very effective. We’ve treated over 2,000 patients with about 50 lives saved based on that treatment.”

Aspirus officials pointed out that there are things everyone can do to help local hospitals throughout the pandemic, the most important of which is to get vaccinated, noting vaccines are safe and dramatically reduce the risk of infection and serious illness. Area residents are also encouraged to choose the appropriate care setting for their health needs and reserve emergency rooms for cases that are most critical and emergent.

Food help available

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Monday announced the launch of MI Benefits Center, whose goal is to assist Michiganders in applying for much-needed food assistance.

“My top priority every day is to make life easier for Michigan families by delivering change that makes a difference in their lives, and the MI Benefits Center is the latest innovation to help us lower food costs for Michigan families,” Whitmer said in a statement. “By delivering additional relief to Michigan families on their grocery bills, we can ease financial burdens for Michiganders, drive down costs and put more money in people’s pockets, putting Michigan first.” 

The MI Benefits Center will have a team of highly trained benefits specialists provide personalized phone-based application assistance to remove barriers that prevent some Michiganders from accessing food support that is critical to their health, the governor’s office said. MDHHS is partnering with Benefits Data Trust, which focuses on improving access to public assistance programs by conducting data-driven outreach and application assistance, as well as by providing policy assistance to states nationwide.  

With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and philanthropic organizations, in the next year the MI Benefits Center will invest up to $1.2 million to support Michiganders. Projections are that the outreach specialists will help process 5,000 successful food assistance applications through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, resulting in approximately $1.1 million a month — or $13.2 million annually — in additional direct benefits to families and $1.7 million in monthly economic stimulus for the state. 

Recently, the MI Benefits Center began mailing letters to older adults and others who are likely eligible for food assistance benefits but are not enrolled in the program. The letters will direct individuals to call a toll-free phone number for free assistance or to apply directly at www.michigan.gov/MIBridges. 

The phone number is only for people who receive letters from the MI Benefits Center. Michiganders who don’t receive a letter can apply for food assistance and other public assistance benefits at www.michigan.gov/MIBridges. 

Flu vaccines recommended

MDHHS and the Department of Insurance and Financial Services remind Michiganders to get their flu vaccines as soon as possible to protect themselves and their communities from flu, especially while continuing to battle COVID-19. Flu and COVID-19 vaccines can be administered at the same time.

Flu activity during the 2020-21 season was very low, likely because of COVID-19 prevention measures — and it’s important to get vaccinated for the flu every year, officials said on Monday. With the onset of the holiday season, they said health experts at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are particularly concerned about the impact reduced immunity could have on people who are already at higher risk of developing serious flu complications, including those with certain chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes.

Getting the flu vaccine reduces the risk of serious flu complications, they said.

“Everyone aged 6 months and up is recommended to receive a flu vaccine and getting it does make a difference — doing your part helps keep your friends, family and neighbors safe,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, MDHHS chief medical executive, in a statement. “There is an ample supply of flu vaccine available in many convenient locations from primary care providers to local pharmacies. We know these vaccines are safe and they protect vulnerable Michiganders.”

While it is ideal to get a flu vaccine before flu starts spreading in your community, getting vaccinated later is still beneficial during most seasons. Flu most commonly peaks in February and significant activity can continue into May, so there is still time to get vaccinated if you haven’t already, officials said.

They urge that during National Influenza Vaccination Week, which is observed Dec. 5-11, people should visit their doctors or local pharmacies to get their flu vaccines, encourage their loved ones to get their flu vaccine, and learn more about the benefits of getting vaccinated against flu.

DIFS also reminds Michiganders that flu shots are an essential health benefit under the Affordable Care Act and are covered with no out-of-pocket costs by most health plans in Michigan. Consumers with questions about their coverage should contact their insurance companies, and if they cannot get the information they need or have additional questions, they can contact DIFS for assistance from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 877-999-6442, or visit Michigan.gov/HealthInsurance.


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