COVID-19 in the news

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St. Clair Shores native who helped develop technology for COVID-19 vaccine honored

As a child in St. Clair Shores, Jason McLellan, Ph.D., knew he wanted to help people. McLellan said he had always thought he’d be a doctor because he wanted to help people. At Wayne State University, he excelled at chemistry and organic chemistry, which aren’t subjects many gravitate toward, he said. “The professors took notice and asked me to work in their lab performing research in organic chemistry,” he said. “I loved it, working in the lab.” He enjoyed it so much that, after publishing his first paper in organic chemistry, he switched his major from pre-med. Taking a graduate-level biochemistry class, he realized that subject fascinated him, as well. In 2003, McLellan graduated from Wayne State University and headed to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for graduate school, where he joined a structural biology laboratory that determines three-dimensional structures of proteins and other biological molecules. It was that path that eventually led him to have an impact on the COVID-19 vaccines now being administered around the world. “I was trained in a technique called X-ray crystallography,” he said. He likened it to growing rock candy, but with crystalized proteins instead. Doing so enabled him and the other researchers to be able to three-dimensional print a protein to see what it looks like and learn how it functions. The design McLellan helped to develop was used in the vaccines created by Johnson and Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer and Novavax. He said they also worked with Eli Lilly to create the antibody treatment to treat COVID-19. His mother, Karen McLellan, said, “He always wanted to be a pediatrician, for as long as I can remember. It changed when he went to Wayne State. Some of the professors took him under his wing, got him into his labs there. That started him on his trajectory.”
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WSU to require COVID-19 vaccines for students living in dorms

Less than five weeks before students move back to Wayne State University, officials said Monday that residents of its dorms will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19. WSU President M. Roy Wilson made the announcement in an email that accompanied results from an online survey showing 86% of respondents reported being vaccinated. Those who responded included 9,106 people, a 29.5% response rate out of the 30,853 members of the campus community. There were 23,052 students enrolled during winter semester. "We are mindful of the particular risks of congregate living," Wilson wrote. "Therefore, we are implementing a targeted mandate for students living in university housing for the fall 2021 semester ... This targeted mandate — which is similar to those implemented by several Michigan universities — will help protect those who live in close proximity to each other. It will also help us prevent spread of the virus on our campus while allowing students to interact and engage face to face — a vital part of the college experience," Wilson added. Wilson wrote Monday that more information, including how to provide proof of vaccination, would be forthcoming "in the near future." WSU has told students they would make a decision by July about whether a vaccine would be required for students living in the dorms based on case trends, said Laurie Lauzon Clabo, WSU's campus chief health and wellness officer. "We felt we couldn't wait any longer," said Clabo, who is also dean of the College of Nursing. "The timing is always tough. We believe we acted responsibility." WSU is following COVID case numbers in the city and state, and two surveys were done to assess the percentage of those vaccinated. While the number of people in the WSU community who have gotten the vaccine is good, Clabo said, the lowest level of uptake is among undergraduate students. Another survey of those living in WSU residence halls showed "overwhelming" support for a mandate, Clabo added. WSU, she said, will work with students if they are not fully vaccinated by move-in, which begins Aug. 26.
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How small businesses in metro Detroit navigated pandemic aid

All week long on The Rebound Detroit, we're shining a light on metro Detroit's small businesses and the people who work tirelessly to make them successful. It's been more than three weeks since our state's remaining COVID-related restrictions lifted, so we're exploring the hit small businesses have taken during the pandemic, what recovery is looking like now, and the road ahead. For many metro Detroit small businesses, government aid during the pandemic has been a vital lifeline. Where payroll wasn't a business' largest expense other federal programs sought to fill the gaps, like the Shuttered Venue Grant and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund; we saw locally a major hiccup with the latter, when funds ran out before all those approved could get their cash. "Big businesses have continuity plans," said Prof. Bertie Greer, associate dean at Wayne State's Mike Ilitch School of Business. "They have already put together some thoughts and done risk management," she said. On top of generally having less cash on hand, makes smaller businesses especially vulnerable during a period of uncertainty like a pandemic, Greer said.
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Is your office safe from COVID?

As COVID cases drop in the U.S. and vaccinations increase, many companies are bringing their employees back to office buildings. And lots of those workers are worried: Will shared spaces remain safe as restrictions are lifted and viral variants spread? Can businesses require all employees to be vaccinated? What office and building features best minimize risk? If you’re vaccinated, you can return to work as normal (mostly). The most effective way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus at work is to make sure that everyone in the shared space is vaccinated. Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specify that fully vaccinated people (those who are two weeks past their final vaccine dose) no longer need to wear a mask or practice physical distancing in most situations, including most office workplaces. COVID vaccines are highly effective at preventing infection and illness, so once you are fully vaccinated, “it doesn’t really matter what the vaccine status is of those around you,” says Gretchen Snoeyenbos Newman, an infectious disease physician at Wayne State University. If you’re returning to a workplace where some of your co-workers are unwilling or unable to get vaccinated or to wear a mask, the best protection you have is getting immunized yourself, she says.

Recorded cases of influenza dropped to ZERO at one Detroit hospital in 2020 as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions killed flu season

Cases of influenza plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one Detroit health system having a zero percent positivity rate for the virus, a new study finds. Researchers from Wayne State University looked at data from the Detroit Medical Center for the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 flu seasons. They found that every single one of the 6,830 tests administered for adults, and the 1,441 for children came back negative for Influenza A and Influenza B during the 2020-21 (September 2021 to February 2021) flu season. There were also zero positive tests for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in adults - out of 6,822 - and one for children among 1,404 tests. The findings add to the wealth of existing information that shows social distancing and mask mandates put in place to protect from COVID-19 were effective in combatting the flu. Researchers expect cases of the flu to return to normal levels now, though, as many COVID precautions are dropped around the country. 'It is likely that the number of cases of flu and other respiratory infections will rise back to normal in the coming years as SARS-CoV-2 becomes a seasonal virus,' said Siri Sarvepalli, a member of the research team at Wayne State. 'However, if handwashing and other mitigating measures are followed to the same extent as last winter, numbers could instead remain lower than usual.'  The team will present its findings at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases this week. 
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Two Michigan universities expect enrollment rebound while others still see declines

Mallory Terpstra has spent summer days visiting Michigan colleges as she enters her senior year at Byron Center High School south of Grand Rapids. Terpstra is among the students that the state's universities are trying to recruit as they seek a rebound a year after college enrollment fell 6.4% in Michigan after the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. Regional schools are reporting fewer newer admissions and declines in returning students, while the state’s two largest research universities expect to approach or surpass 2019 admissions. Among the Michigan public universities that suffered the most in the fall of 2020 were Central Michigan and Ferris State with 17,344 and 11,165 students, respectively, 11% declines from the previous year, according to a report by the Michigan Association of State Universities. Not far behind were Eastern Michigan University, with 16,324 students enrolled, a decline of 8% from fall 2019, and the University of Michigan-Flint, with 6,829 students, a drop of 6%. Least affected were the state's Big Three public universities. Enrollments at UM, MSU and Wayne State declined 0.4%, 0.2% and 2.2%, respectively. At Oakland, enrollment dipped 2.4% to 18,555 students in fall 2020.
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Don Cheadle says Detroit 'absolutely a character' after filming 'No Sudden Move'

There are important themes embedded in “No Sudden Move” — things like corporate greed and racism — that don’t necessarily make for a slick, diverting thriller. But Don Cheadle says what he loves about the movie is that weighty matters are “part and parcel” of the dangerous schemes that unfold in this engrossing crime saga set in 1954 Detroit and shot last year in the Motor City during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before filming, Director Steven Soderbergh consulted with experts like Larry Brilliant, a renowned epidemiologist and native Detroiter and Wayne State University medical school alum who had advised him on “Contagion,” the 2011 thriller about a deadly virus that eerily presaged the pandemic. The movie also hired Wayne State's Dr. Phillip Levy, who was involved in COVID-19 testing programs for Wayne Health, a 300-doctor group practice. Medical staffers from Wayne Health handled the regularly required testing for cast and crew members, using mobile testing units to reach various locations. To show his appreciation to Detroit, Soderbergh made a personal donation to Wayne Health of two new mobile labs. "It seems honestly like a really good way to contribute to the community, so that we weren’t just coming here and sort of extracting something without giving anything in return,” the director told the Free Press in November. 
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COVID-19 virus is getting much better at moving from one person to another

On Tuesday, with few exceptions, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer removed all remaining capacity restrictions and mask mandates related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Michigan has over 61% of people ages 16 and older vaccinated and declining case rates, some people still worry whether Michigan is reopening prematurely. Meanwhile, the delta variant is becoming more and more dominant, leaving many to wonder if they should be concerned about it and whether the vaccines will protect against these new strains. The delta variant has appeared in Michigan and as of Monday, there have been 25 reported cases. Dr. Paul Kilgore is an associate professor and director of research at Wayne State University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Kilgore says he’s happy that Michigan officials are lifting restrictions to transition to post-pandemic life because of the stress alleviation it provides to so many state residents. Yet, he adds he is still worried about the coming fall.  
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U.S. Department of Commerce invests $754,840 in Cares Act Recovery Assistance to support medical technology innovators in southeast Michigan

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded a $754,840 CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant to TechTown Detroit to support innovation and entrepreneurship in the region’s medical and manufacturing sectors. This EDA grant, to be matched with $249,900 in local investment, is expected to generate $5.5 million in private investment. “TechTown has been helping to build a more resilient and inclusive economy by leveraging this region’s unique assets for more than 17 years, and now we have a partner at the highest level to help us expand our impact,” said Ned Staebler, president and CEO of TechTown Detroit. “With this grant from the Economic Development Administration, we’ll engage 25 regional stakeholders including healthcare systems, local government entities, private investors, universities and economic development organizations to advance regional innovation in medical technology, creating good-paying jobs and helping SE Michigan build back better.” “This critical support from the Economic Development Administration signals a commitment at the highest level to Detroit’s innovation ecosystem,” said Wayne State University President and TechTown Chair M. Roy Wilson. “With it, TechTown will continue to be a leader in driving the region’s economic recovery through the COVID-19 crisis via its MedHealth cluster. Since 2015, MedHealth has played a critical role in convening, educating and connecting medical innovation stakeholders in the Detroit region, and we are thrilled to work with the EDA to expand programs that will further catalyze entrepreneurship and business growth in the region’s healthcare sector.”  
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Next generation COVID treatments: What experts look to change, improve

Pharmaceutical companies are already hard at work to make the next generation of vaccines for COVID-19 easier to administer, less invasive in some cases, and more effective against a wider range of illnesses. Pfizer and Moderna are already conducting trials to evaluate booster vaccines to protect against new variants, the results of which are expected later this year. “They have to be as good or better than the current vaccines that we have," said Dr. Paul Kilgore, an associate professor and the director of research in the Department of Pharmacy Practice within the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at Wayne State University. Kilgore, who is also a senior investigator with Henry Ford Health System's Global Health Initiative, told Action News hitting that gold standard takes time. “The first approach is to develop an mRNA vaccine very similar in design to the original vaccine that Pfizer and Moderna have, but what they will have is a new sequence in the mRNA that corresponds to the new spike protein in the variant," he said. 
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Senate Republicans pass bill to block minors from COVID vaccine requirements

The Michigan Senate is getting in the middle of the COVID vaccine debate and working to put laws on the books to keep kids out of it. Tuesday, state senators voted to block minors from COVID-19 vaccine requirements. Wayne State University Infectious Disease Professor Dr. Teena Chopra says the data proves the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine for both adults and children. The researcher and medical doctor also states it’s the only way to reach herd immunity. “We are looking forward and hoping that throughout the summer the vaccination rates keep going up; and in the fall when we have school starting and also the fact that in fall, we usually see a surge in viral infections. We want at least 70 to 80 percent of our population fully vaccinated,” said Chopra. Currently students are required to follow state vaccine laws for diseases like polio and the measles to attend school. But Dr. Chopra says the same mandate should not be ordered for COVID vaccines since health care providers only have an emergency use authorization. “We need a full approval on this vaccination and also because we want to give the freedom to parents to find out more about the vaccine, to ask questions and then make an informed decision,” said Chopra.
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Mich. House pushes plan to slash UM, Wayne State funding

Michigan's 15 public universities are bracing for a potential change that would severely alter how state aid is divided up among them, with most schools expected to see increases at the expense of two of the state's top research institutions. The Michigan House of Representatives this month passed controversial legislation that would tie the annual appropriation for the state's public universities to the number of full-time Michigan students enrolled. The House plan does not include an increase in funding for higher education — unlike the 2% increase passed by the Senate and recommended by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Instead, it would keep the appropriation around $1.3 billion but shuffle how much each college gets while phasing the changes in over three years. Under the House plan, UM's Ann Arbor campus stands to lose the most: $39.5 million, or 12% of its state funding, in the first year and nearly $125 million over the first three years. Wayne State would lose $8.2 million, or 4% of its state aid, in the first year and nearly $29 million in three years. Both universities, respectively, educate a larger percentage of non-resident students. Michigan would become the only state in the nation to use resident enrollment as the sole basis for state funding, said Britany Affolter-Caine, executive director of the University Research Corridor, an alliance of UM, WSU and MSU that promotes research as a driver of the state's economy. Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson said a cut of $28.6 million over three years would dramatically impact tuition and services at the urban research institution where 2,135 of the 24,155 enrolled students are not from Michigan. The proposed funding change is a similar mechanism that is used to fund K-12 education in Michigan, which pays a set amount per student to schools each year, but it costs more to educate graduate and professional students, Wilson said. Some universities can put 300 undergraduate students into one lecture hall whereas a medical school class may not have that many. "There is a difference of scale here," Wilson said. "There needs to be a more sophisticated mechanism that better recognizes the unique missions of the 15 public universities in Michigan." Wilson added there is an underappreciation of research universities' contributions to the state's economy and residents' health and wellbeing. "Michigan has not historically appreciated the value of research," Wilson said. "There is a huge (investment) return on research. ... Research has a multiplier effect. The kind of technologies that come out of research universities: the life-saving discoveries and the improved quality of life is also really important. It's not just the financial benefit."
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Brighton mother, daughter share experiences caring for COVID-19 patients in ICU, hospice

When Michigan went into coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, Madison and Darlene Wiljanen went to work. Madison, 23, was working as a nursing assistant at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Her mother, Darlene, is a hospice nurse. "It was absolutely insane... people would transition so quickly," Madison said. "They would come in, I’d talk to them; they wouldn’t be on a ventilator yet. They would be on high-flow oxygen being monitored very closely. The next day I would come back and they would be ventilated, so nonverbal, sedated. Then two days later, they would be gone." Madison spent three weeks working with patients in the ICU who had COVID-19. It was a drastic change from the cardiac telemetry floor she worked on for months previously. She said "there was no light at the end of the tunnel" when she was working on that unit. This year Madison participated in a vaccine initiative in Detroit through the Detroit Public Health Department. Together with a group of doctors and nurses, Madison and several of her classmates in Wayne State's nursing program visited group homes in Detroit. Many of those living in the group homes had special needs, Madison said. "It’s a matter of life or death for these people," she said. "For me it was, yeah, I want the vaccine so I can have things go back to normal, but these people need it to keep them out of the hospital."
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An end in sight? Michigan experts say COVID finally ‘winding down’

Maybe — probably, but not definitely — the COVID-19 pandemic is finally coming to a close, according to those on the front lines of Michigan’s greatest public health battle in more than a century. In Ingham County health officer Linda Vail’s view, the virus linked to 18,815 deaths in Michigan and more than 3.4 million worldwide or more appears to be “winding down.” Effective vaccines have brought about an early end to the pandemic, said Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease doctor in Detroit. She was in “utter disbelief” at the third wave that hit the state earlier this year, and it’s only been in recent weeks that she has felt able to breathe again, she said. “You know, it depends how we define an end” to the pandemic, Chopra said. “I define the end as the uncoupling of case rates and the mortality rates.” In other words, both deaths and case rates are falling as vaccine coverage increases. But death rates are on a far steeper decline — indicating that “break-through” cases among the vaccinated are far less severe. “I think we can hope now, because the vaccines are so very, very effective,” she said. Chopra and other medical professionals have repeatedly noted in recent weeks that the lion’s share of hospitalized patients are those who have not been vaccinated. That the vaccines “work like a charm” has brought around a quicker end to the pandemic, she said.
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Basically everyone is mad at the CDC for being so confusing about masks

Don’t wear a mask. Wear a mask. In fact, wear two masks. Now take your masks off (once you get your shots). Keep the mask on, though, if you're in stores — well, some of them. The CDC’s latest change in guidelines, announcing that vaccinated people can stop wearing masks in most places, has governors complaining, scientists unhappy, and people confused. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, has defended the new guidelines, saying the agency was simply “following the science.” The goal, she said, was to clearly declare that vaccines were effective and, amid declining vaccination rates, convince more people to get their shots. But health communication experts who spoke with BuzzFeed News said that, even armed with new data, the sudden switches in advice simply cross people’s wires without warning, said Matthew Seeger, a health and risk communication scholar at Wayne State University. You have to lay the ground carefully before you change guidance so people can understand where it is coming from. “We spent a year trying very hard to get people to wear masks,” Seeger said. “This kind of sudden, abrupt change, without any kind of signaling that it’s coming, will leave people feeling blindsided.”
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Wayne State University requiring masks to be worn indoors

Despite CDC recommendations, one Michigan University is mandating masks to be worn inside. Wayne State University says the school has no practical way of differentiating vaccinated and unvaccinated people. WSU also says it will not require masks to be worn outside of campus buildings. “We need to operate in a manner that protects the safety of every member of our campus community. Therefore, masks will still be required indoors on Wayne State’s campus. Mask wearing outdoors, regardless of vaccination status, will no longer be required. We do ask that people continue to exercise caution and avoid large outdoor gatherings if the vaccination status of all participants is uncertain,” said Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson. 
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Wayne State to require masks inside campus buildings

Wayne State University will require masks to be worn indoors in spite of recently-released guidelines from the federal government and state health department, President M. Roy Wilson announced Monday. Wilson wrote in a letter to the campus community that he supports the new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which announced last week that people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask unless required by local laws or workplace requirements. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration lifted mask mandates for fully vaccinated residents as of Saturday. "However, the practical limitation in the CDC guidelines is that we do not have the ability to differentiate those who have been vaccinated from those who have not," Wilson wrote. "This information is important, particularly if everyone is unmasked indoors. We need to operate in a manner that protects the safety of every member of our campus community. Therefore, masks will still be required indoors on Wayne State’s campus." Relaxing the CDC guidelines on mask-wearing for fully vaccinated residents is a hopeful, and pivotal moment in the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson said. "The key to a fully open and healthy campus is the degree to which our campus community is vaccinated," Wilson said. "If you have not yet been vaccinated, I urge you to do so as soon as possible."  Wayne State's on-campus mandate also comes after the university offered a $10 incentive to students if they provide proof that they have been vaccinated by May 7. Of Wayne State's 27,000 enrolled students, 2,659 students participated, or about 10%. WSU spokesman Matt Lockwood said others likely have been vaccinated and did not take advantage of the incentive. Wilson will host a town hall meeting at 3 p.m. on Tuesday to discuss fall plans. He urged students to get the vaccine and said that the university Campus Health Center offers the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Said Wilson: "I look forward to seeing you all on campus soon – unmasked."
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CDC mask guidance is premature, Wayne State medical researcher says

If you’re fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask in most situations inside or outside. That’s the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which surprised regular folks and public health experts alike with the announcement last Thursday. Michigan followed suit, lifting the mask requirement for fully vaccinated people and said unvaccinated people do not need to wear one outdoors. The CDC notes people should continue to follow regulations from local governments and private entities. While some public health experts say the CDC is making the right decision, others are concerned that relaxing guidance is premature at this stage of the pandemic. Dr. Paul Kilgore is an associate professor and director of research at Wayne State University’s Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He says the new guidelines are premature. Kilgore cites Michigan’s current vaccination numbers. He says about 50% of the population has had at least one dose of a vaccine, and 42% are fully vaccinated. “When you look around the community or an environment — shopping, restaurant, wherever you are — you can’t assume that everyone is vaccinated,” says Kilgore. He says he has not changed his personal behaviors despite the new CDC guidelines. “Personally, I’m wearing a mask still inside the gym or if I go out shopping or to a restaurant, a grocery store, that kind of thing,” he says. Kilgore also recommends people who are either immunocompromised or around people who are immunocompromised should continue wearing masks, even if vaccinated.
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Mask mandate over for vaccinated in Michigan. Confusion for everyone else?

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Friday dropped Michigan’s mask mandate for fully vaccinated people, easing a restriction that could have remained well into summer but creating a host of questions in the process. The order, which takes effect Saturday at 9 a.m., came one day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance saying fully vaccinated people could safely go indoors without masks. That made mask mandates nationwide almost impossible to enforce, and many states have already dropped them since the CDC announcement. The new CDC guidance shows the national vaccination effort has been successful so far and could encourage other residents to seek inoculation, said Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease specialist with Wayne Health and Wayne State University. "We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," said Chopra, who works in Detroit. "I see a lot of hesitancy here, and I hope this will incentivize Detroiters to get vaccinated."