Michigan’s Thumb region is the hottest of U.S. hot spots for coronavirus right now.
But at Mark’s Barbershop in the small downtown of Sandusky, masks are optional.
“Just so you know, you don’t have to wear that if you don’t want to,” owner Mark Heberling says as a masked visitor walks through door.
Across the street at the Downtown Deli, an sign at the entry says: “If we see you without a mask, we will assume you have a medical condition and we will welcome inside.”
The same philosophy holds true down the road at the Sandusky Family Diner, a former Big Boy that had its franchise terminated after violating state’s the indoor dining ban in November.
“I didn’t sign up to be the mask police,” says restaurant owner Troy Tank, as a handful of maskless employees clean up after the lunch rush. Tank casually mentions one worker is home quarantining after a positive COVID test.
Past the diner is the Sandusky Walmart, where mask use has been “50/50,” Tank says. After a coronavirus outbreak among workers, the Walmart was closed for part of the day Monday and all day Tuesday for deep cleaning.
Sandusky, population 2,500, is the county seat of Sanilac County, 40 miles north of Port Huron and in the heart of the Thumb, a region known for its expansive Lake Huron shorelines, its rolling farmlands and its friendly small towns.
In recent weeks, it’s also become known for its coronavirus rates.
On Friday, five of the nation’s top 15 counties in per-capita coronavirus cases were in Michigan’s Thumb — St. Clair, Huron, Sanilac, Tuscola and Lapeer.
Collectively, the five counties have reported 3,167 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the past seven days, a per capita daily rate of 1,216 cases per million residents — six times the national average and eight times the benchmark for the state’s highest risk level of 150 cases per million residents.
The region also has an eye-popping 32% positivity rate as a seven-day on coronavirus diagnostic tests, more than six times the level considered safe.
“These communities are literally on fire,” said Dr. Mark Hamed, public medical director for Lapeer, Huron, Sanilac and Tuscola counties.
Ask the region’s health experts for the reasons behind the spike, they point to multiple factors.
Compared to the rest of Michigan, the Thumb was less impacted by previous surges, which meant fewer people had natural immunity coming into the spring. The area appears to be hard-hit by the new B.1.1.7. variant which is much more contagious and also more lethal. Restrictions implemented in November have been eased, increasing social interactions.
And fanning the flames is widespread resistance among local residents to coronavirus mitigation strategies such as masking and avoiding indoor gatherings, said Bryant Wilke, Sanilac County public health director.
“There’s been a defiance towards masks,” Wilke said, “and I think it was because it got so political at the beginning of the pandemic. People said, ‘We don’t trust this. We never had to do it before,’ even through its been proven that it is a protective factor. People haven’t gotten over the hump to say, ‘We need to do this,’ and now we’re seeing the causation of not doing it and that’s the skyrocketing numbers in cases.
“I compare us to a potential wildfire,” Wilke said. “You’ve got fuel out there and the virus hadn’t hit us that bad yet. Now it’s hitting us and we’re dealing with the U.K. variant, and it’s just moving through the population rapidly.”
At the same time, Thumb residents — like many in Michigan — are thoroughly sick of more than a year of various coronavirus restrictions. They are ready to move on, whether the pandemic is over or not.
“We’re just f—– done with it,” Heberling said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Tank said, people were “scared enough about the virus” to pay attention to emergency orders issued by the state.
But people have moved beyond that now, he said. “They’ve had it.”
Joseph Schlichting, 29-year-old who grew up in Sanilac County and moved back just before the pandemic, He said he’s not surprised that the Thumb has become an epicenter for coronavirus.
“Some people who took the restrictions seriously saw the numbers go down, so they stopped working with the restrictions,” he said. “But I think there’s a large group of people who just never followed the rules from Day 1.
“It’s been kind of eye-opening to see people that you’ve known all your life, people you would think would take this kind of risks seriously or take precautions seriously, but they don’t or seem to just flat out think it’s a lie.”
The politics of COVID
Hamed has long worried that the Thumb is vulnerable because of residents’ disdain for coronavirus restrictions.
Still, good luck and geographic isolation meant the Thumb wasn’t hit as hard as other parts of Michigan in 2020.
“I think that allowed people to discount how serious this is,” Hamed said.
But as COVID-19 numbers came down statewide in January, the numbers dropped less in the Thumb.
“So we were still at a higher level, higher than average,” Hamed said. “Than gradually as the variants became more predominant, combined with the behaviors on mask use and distancing,” the numbers took off.
“We kind of saw this coming,” he said.
Fueling the attitude around the pandemic are the region’s political leanings. In the November election, 72% of voters in Sanilac County cast their ballots for Donald Trump, one of the highest percentages in the state. In the five-county Thumb region, it was 67%.
Trump’s popularity in the region certainly didn’t help with public health messaging around COVID-19, considering the former president’s skepticism of the masks and the seriousness of the pandemic in general, Hamed said.
“It created mixed messages that muddied the waters for a lot of rural Michigan” where Trump is revered, Hamed said.
No question, echoes of Trump’s talking points about the pandemic are apparent in talking to his supporters about the pandemic. That said, the rhetoric of conservatives has shifted over time. A year ago, some were suggesting the pandemic was a hoax, something no more harmful than seasonal flu. Today, skeptics are less likely to offer that argument.
“I definitely don’t think it’s a hoax,” Tank said. “I do think the virus is real. I know people who have had it. I know people who have gotten very sick from it. My father got it, and he was very sick. My brother, who’s a couple years younger than me, relatively healthy guy in his 30s, had it quite bad.”
But Tank is among those who question whether the mitigation strategies have made any difference.
“We all just need to live our lives,” he said. “My opinion is that you’ve either had coronavirus or you’re going to get it.”
He points to states such as Florida that have far less restrictions than Michigan and currently lower caseloads. In his reading on the topic, he said, it appears that coronavirus particles are too small to be contained by cloth masks. He’s highly skeptical that indoor dining contributes to coronavirus transmission rates. The vaccine “makes him a little nervous” and he questions whether it really works.
Tank said he greatly resents what he feels is government overreach. He sees Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as “extremely power hungry” who is just using the pandemic as an excuse to be an authoritative leader. He especially doesn’t trust government officials after a November election that Tank is convinced was stolen from Trump.
Another thing that’s fueled his skepticism, he said, is the changing advisories from the federal Centers for Disease Control.
“One day, a mask is great, and the next day, it’s not great. One day, you should be six feet apart. The next day, it’s three feet,” he said. “They’re just all over the map. So when the people who are supposed to be the professionals are so unclear, that kind of leaves enough doubt in my mind to where I’m just going do what I feel is best for me and my family.
“We’re strong. We’re healthy. We take care of ourselves and do the proper things that I think prevents us from getting sick,” he said.
That fact that more than a year after the pandemic started, the state is still under emergency orders proves to Tank that experts really don’t know what they’re doing.
“It started out as two weeks to flatten the curve and here we are, 13 months later,” he said.
Like Tank, Heberling said that he doesn’t question whether the virus is real. But he does think the pandemic has been grossly mismanaged.
On a mirror in Heberling’s barbershop is a sticker that reads “MI COVID POW.”
He’s scornful of lockdowns and mask use, saying keeping people indoors and masked has hurt their immune systems. “You need fresh air in your lungs every day,” he said. And people “are constantly touching their masks, so they’re transporting bacteria to the next thing they touch.”
Heberling also thinks the United States has ignored medications such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as coronavirus treatments. “I think there are medications out there if used early on could have greatly decreased the number of cases,” he said.
Hamed is clearly frustrated by the misinformation being passed around.
Because COVID-19 is a new disease, the science is evolving and advisories have changed as experts have learned more, he said. But it’s clear by now that masking reduces transmission rates, as do other mitigation strategies such as a ban on indoor dining. Researchers have yet to come up with medications that can prevent coronavirus. The vaccines have proven to be highly safe and effective.
As for the emphasis on individual liberty, “that’s fine when the individual decisions affect you and only you,” Hamed said. But when battling a highly contagious, lethal disease, “you have to be mindful of others. When it involves decisions that impact others around you — your employees, your colleagues, your family members — that changes the dynamics entirely.”
A sense of urgency
But even as people such as Tank and Heberling say they’re done with governmental attempts to address the pandemic, the medical professionals on the frontline in the Thumb see a deepening crisis.
A big concern is that COVID-19 variants seem to be spreading infection more rapidly and causing more serious illness.
“Anecdotally, we’re seeing people are getting sick from teenagers to 50-year-olds in age brackets where they didn’t get that sick before,” Wilke said. “Now they’re getting sick and we’re seeing more hospitalizations.”
In his daily conversations with the county’s communicable disease nurse, Wilke said, she’s reporting that increase in contagion.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, one or two people in the family may have gotten COVID,” Wilke said. “Now we’re seeing the entire family get it, because it’s so contagious.”
His contagious disease nurse also is reporting that some people are catching COVID for the second time, Wilke said.
Current trends upend the idea that communities simply need strategies to protect the elderly and those with serious health conditions, Hamed said. “The fact is, we’re seeing a lot of otherwise healthy people get very sick. So it’s no longer just about protecting the vulnerable.”
Hamed said he also worries about the strain on hospital resources, for both COVID and non-COVID patients. At one point this week, he said, it took five hours for the emergency department at the small Sandusky hospital to find an inpatient bed for a patient “because every one of our local hospitals that accept patients was absolutely full.”
“So this is a reality that we need to accept, Hamed said. “It’s affecting us all. It really is.”
Wilke said that he’s convinced the road out of this current surge is through vaccinations, and he’s trying to vaccinate as many Sanilac County residents as fast as he can.
But there’s resistance on that front, too: 31% of adults in Sanilac County and 33% in the five-county Thumb region have gotten at least one vaccine dose so far compared to a state average of 39%.
Heberling, the Sandusky barber, is among those suspicious of COVID-19 vaccines.
“It’s not a vaccine that’s been proven. It’s basically in test form now,” he said. “I know very few people who have gotten the vaccine. I bet 80% of people in this community won’t get it.”
Wilke acknowledges that many are hesitant to get the vaccine. But he also sees that hesitance eroding. He pointed to the Sanilac County Sheriff’s Office. During the first vaccine clinic for the department, “about 10 deputies come through. The next time, another 10 signed up. And then another 10 the next time,” he said. “So it takes a little time for people to get used to the idea.”
Initially, “there was quite a bit of hesitance,” Hamed said. “We’re seeing less now. I think the reasons are twofold: I think people are seeing others getting vaccines without developing weird side effects, and people also are seeing others get very sick with this illness.”
At the vaccination clinic
It’s a hopeful sign, Wilke said, that he had no trouble filling up the schedule for several mass vaccination clinics being held in Sanilac County this past week.
Jennifer Gierman, a stay-at-home mother, was among those at a vaccination clinic Tuesday,.
“I’m pretty excited” about getting her first shot of the Moderna vaccine, said Gierman, who is 49.
Gierman said she’s taken the pandemic much more seriously than many others in the Thumb. “I haven’t seen my mom or dad since Christmas,” she said. “My daughter calls me COVID mom because there’s friends where she’s very close to them and we don’t allow them in the house.”
It’s dismaying to see the dismissive attitude that many have adopted about the pandemic, she said.
“I don’t feel like wearing a mask is a political thing. I think it’s a respect thing,” she said. “Yet here you get looks for wearing a mask.
“And like at school, my younger daughter said that in the beginning, the school was good about enforcing the masks but kids push the limits and by the end of the day they’re wearing them as chin diapers,” Gierman said. “For sure, teenagers are going to push boundaries no matter what. But they also mimic what they see at home and in the community.”
Even at this point, with community people getting sick and hospitalized, she said, “people still don’t take seriously. I don’t know what it takes to convince them.”
Hamed is more optimistic.
“We’re getting hit hard right now, and I think behaviors definitely will change,” he said. Thumb residents “care a lot about each other. When their neighbors are sick, when they’re hospitalized, that’s a motivator right there. These are small communities and they all know each other.
“What we’re doing right now is focusing on prevention, treatment and education. We think having reliable information from reliable sources can be key to combatting misinformation,” Hamed said. “I think people are going to come out of this knowing that the information they heard from the people who downplayed it was absolutely false.
“People accuse us of trying to feed a narrative, trying to fix a narrative,” Hamed said. “That’s no narrative to fix. Let’s save lives.”
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