Michigan is now beginning to provide data on COVID-19 outbreaks by setting and region, finally providing a small window into the state’s plateauing positive cases and deaths in the state.
Beginning Thursday, August 20, the state began publicly posting its tables, which will hopefully provide a clearer picture going forward of how different industries and settings are impacted by COVID-19 infections. The data sets account for outbreaks in a variety of settings, ranging from agricultural facilities to offices to social gatherings. Outbreaks are defined as locations where two or more cases have been identified “with a link by place and time indicating a shared exposure outside of a household,” according to Lynn Sutfin, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). “These are individuals who have tested positive and were found to have this link of time and space.” The data set includes both ongoing outbreaks, lasting more than the previous two weeks, and new outbreaks, identified within the current reporting week. The data goes so far as to separate out bars and restaurants with outbreaks only among staff and those with outbreaks between staff and customers.
For months now, consumers, employees, and operators in the restaurant industry have struggled with the uncertainty of the novel coronavirus, which hides in plain sight and threatens the basic foundations of hospitality services. Every action people take during this time involves weighing risk versus reward: Is it worth going out to see a friend for lunch? How often should I visit the grocery store? Can I safely order takeout?
Early on in the pandemic, people looked to vague charts that rated various arbitrary behaviors for guidance. Experts occasionally offered limited thoughts on issues, while collectively hedging their statements with what felt like a big shrug emoji due to problems with, or lack of, data.
In the spring, as virus cases surged in Michigan, taking the lives of thousands of people in a matter of weeks, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer came out strongly, implementing a stay-at-home order that temporarily halted in-person work for large portions of the economy. And while other states, such as Ohio, began to reopen under pressure from the White House and business leaders, Whitmer took a slightly more cautious approach and has continued to do so.
Despite the toll on the economy, that effort appears to have paid off to a certain extent in driving down the number of cases in the state and relieving pressure on local hospitals. However, cases began rising again after the reopening of restaurants and bars in late May and early June; the state seemed to be losing some its ground against the virus won through the collective sacrifices made in the spring. Almost immediately, there were temporary closures at certain local restaurants due to possible COVID-19 exposure, and larger outbreaks associated with bars and nightclubs drove major spikes in cases across the state in July. Michigan responded by closing bars to indoor service, while allowing restaurants to continue indoor and outdoor service at 50 percent capacity with social distancing. The logic is that in a bar setting, where alcohol drives socializing, lowered inhibitions make people less aware of novel coronavirus practices like staying six feet apart and wearing a mask when not seated.
It would have been useful to be able to see and compare outbreak numbers associated with industries going back to the late-May reopening of the economy; that sort of change over time could demonstrate how shifts in policy impacted caseloads and deaths throughout the summer as well as whether associated mask regulations were effective in reducing outbreaks in the state.
Instead, the public and journalists, including those at Eater, have had to piece together information about outbreaks based on sparse press releases by local and state health departments, weekly state briefings, and a regular stream of social media posts by businesses announcing temporary closures due to novel coronavirus infections. It’s made it particularly difficult to gauge not only risk, but also how effective certain government measures have been in reducing transmission of the virus and protecting workers.
Shortly after the New York Times ran a piece on Wednesday, August 12, identifying indoor dining during the pandemic as a major driver of the summer surge in COVID-19 cases across the nation, Eater reached out to local health departments and officials with the state of Michigan to try to determine exactly how cases in the state appear to be spreading as a result of the partial reopening of the economy. Eater was told by multiple health departments at the local level that they do not keep track of outbreaks by industry, but prioritize notifying the public through news releases in the case of potentially large outbreaks associated with an exposure site. When contacting MDHHS, Eater was provided with data that offered a picture of outbreaks limited to the week of July 31 — showing that the state does in fact track how the virus is spread based on setting (something that would presumably be necessary for making policy decisions).
That July 31 data set showed that while still significant, restaurants and bars didn’t comprise the largest percentage of new and ongoing outbreaks; new and ongoing outbreaks seemed to be tied to social gatherings like weddings and funerals as well as community care facilities. All together, it showed nine ongoing outbreaks that week from restaurants, bars, and their patrons, and eight new outbreaks. Agriculture, food processing facilities, and migrant camps (a sector of the industry that Whitmer’s administration has focused on in recent weeks) overall ranked fifth in ongoing outbreaks, below office settings and manufacturing and construction. There were eight ongoing outbreaks associated with agriculture, food processing facilities, and migrant camps, and three new outbreaks.
Eater requested data from weeks back to early June, when the wider dine-in reopening began; Eater was told it wasn’t available, but that it would potentially be released to the public soon.
Based on the recent data release, we now know that for the week of August 20, there were a total of 70 new and 222 ongoing outbreaks across multiple settings, industries, and regions. Restaurants, bars, and agricultural or food-processing-related locations accounted for 14 percent of the total number of outbreaks and 20 percent of newly identified outbreaks.
For decoding purposes, region 2S represents the city of Detroit as well as Detroit, Monroe, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, and 2N represents Macomb, Oakland, and St. Clair counties. For more information on regions, visit the state’s coronavirus website and select a preparedness region. Here’s the data pertaining to the food industry for the week of August 20:
Bar - Employee Associated:
- New Outbreaks: 1 (region 2N)
- Ongoing Outbreaks: 4 (3 in region 2S and 1 in region 8)
- Total: 5
Bar - Employee and Patron Associated:
- New Outbreaks: 1 (region 3)
- Ongoing Outbreaks: 1 (region 2S)
- Total: 2
Restaurant - Employee Associated:
- New Outbreaks: 8 (4 in region 2N, 1 in region 6, and 3 in region 7)
- Ongoing Outbreaks: 4 (1 in region 2N, 1 in region 6, 2 in region 7)
- Total: 12
Restaurant - Employee and Patron Associated:
- New Outbreaks: 0
- Ongoing Outbreaks: 0
- Total: 0
Agricultural, Food processing, Migrant Camps (e.g. farm, meat packing, hatchery, etc.):
- New Outbreaks: 4 (1 in region 3, 2 in region 5, and 1 in region 6)
- Ongoing Outbreaks: 18 (2 in region 3, 10 in region 5, 4 in region 6, 2 in region 7)
- Total: 22
Total Reported Outbreaks for Restaurants: 12 (8 new outbreaks | 4 ongoing)
Total Reported Outbreaks for Bars: 7 (2 new outbreaks | 5 ongoing)
Restaurant/Bar Overall Percentage of All New Outbreaks: 14.3 percent
Restaurant/Bar Percentage of All Ongoing Outbreaks: 4 percent
Restaurant/Bar Percentage of All Reported Outbreaks: 6.5 percent
Agriculture/Food Processing/Migrant Camp Percentage of All New Outbreaks: 5.7 percent
Agriculture/Food Processing/Migrant Camp Percentage of All Ongoing Outbreaks: 8.1 percent
Michigan Food Industry Percentage of All New Outbreaks: 20 percent
Michigan Food Industry Percentage of All Ongoing Outbreaks: 12.2 percent
Michigan Food Industry Percentage of All Reported Outbreaks for Week of August 20: 14 percent
The data, of course, doesn’t show the full picture. It doesn’t, for example, demonstrate the magnitude of those outbreaks — meaning that one identified outbreak could describe two cases or 22 cases. That could mean that while the food industry as whole shows fewer outbreaks than other industries or settings, the number of cases associated with the industry could be higher or lower. Local health officials, however, have made efforts to communicate major outbreaks to the public.
As the state website points out, one of the keys to tracking these outbreaks and controlling them is contact tracing — an effort that’s been hobbled in part by a lack of response from the public. In other words, these numbers are likely underreporting the true extent of outbreaks in the state. That’s why it’s vitally important to respond to contact tracers in the state for the safety of yourself and those around you, and to get tested if you are showing symptoms or think you may have come in contact with someone with the virus.
As of August 26, Michigan has reported 6,690 deaths from COVID-19 related causes and identified a total of 109,480 confirmed and likely cases. The burden of those deaths has disproportionately impacted BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) residents, the elderly, and people with preexisting conditions that often go hand in hand with poverty. While the number of cases and deaths has slowed, it’s started to creep up again — particularly since July 5, when the state reported its first day with no COVID-19 deaths since March 17. Michigan continues to average between 600 and 700 new cases a day going into flu season.
Eater plans to keep track of this data going forward for the restaurant, bar, and agricultural industry. New data is available every Monday.