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Sophia Schiepek, 19, of Roger City takes part in a voluntary COVID-19 test during a move-in day for students at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula turned into a COVID-19 hot spot during the latest surge as nearly 1,400 children got sick from the virus, overall infections tripled and deaths spiked even more — all while many infected Yoopers went to work, church and weddings when they were symptomatic, ignored social distancing and refused to cooperate with contact tracers, according to new data obtained through open records requests.

In the last two and a half months alone, more than 13,500 people in the U.P. contracted the novel coronavirus, a three-fold increase since the pandemic began in March, the data shows. The death toll during this second wave was even starker: 337 dead in 10 weeks, compared to 46 deaths in the previous seven months.

Children were especially hard hit: 1,388 school children got COVID in the second wave, compared to 149 in the previous seven months.

This harrowing U.P. snapshot is based on new, demographical data obtained by Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project. In collaboration with the Free Press, the Columbia project analyzed the state's virus data and confidential contract tracing notes from Oct. 6 through Dec. 22 in the U.P., which seemed an unlikely target for an outbreak given its rural makeup and sparse population: just 3% of Michiganders live in the U.P.

By October, however, the region had become one of the state's most severe COVID hotspots with 750 new cases a week.

"The U.P. was low forever, and then it just started to take off with a vengeance in October and November," said Dr. Bob Lorinser, a Marquette physician who monitors the spread of COVID-19 in 10 U.P. counties for the state.

"We got clobbered," Lorinser said, noting the virus numbers have since leveled off and continue to drop in the U.P., which has 15 hospitals and 750 total beds — with just 58 for intensive care.

"Why did it go up? I don’t know. Why did it go down? I don’t know," Lorinser said in an interview last week with the Free Press. "It seems like this virus just wants to jump around. I think we need to remember it's a virus. And it's out of our control."

But many in the U.P. ignored things that were in their control, contract tracers found, such as staying home when sick, avoiding large gatherings and refusing to cooperate with investigators. For example:

A worker for the Menominee County Road Commission left work on Dec. 4 when he started feeling sick — he was already infected — but refused to give the names of his co-workers to contact tracers. An infected bank teller with two young children worked two days in December, but went without a mask at times at work. So did two of her colleagues because it was "difficult for customers to hear them." Multiple people with COVID-19 attended weddings with up to 100 people during their infectious period in October and November in the Delta- Menominee area. Multiple parishioners attended church alongside crowds of up to 80 people while symptomatic. A housekeeper at the Island Resort and Casino in Harris worked for several days while infected in December, falling sick on Dec. 10. A registered nurse at OSF Healthcare in Escanaba got sick on Dec. 15 and worked for eight days while infected. An employee at the Escanaba Mill — the largest local employer — said many infected people came to work while others with cold symptoms but didn't get tested. Another infected mill worker said that when he found out he was exposed in early October, he let his employer know, but had to continue working until he tested positive — which he eventually did on October 15.

U.P. is not rebelling

Escanaba Mayor Marc Tall, who oversees the third largest city in the U.P. with 12,600 people, acknowledged the spike in COVID-19 cases, saying: "I'm not sure what to attribute that to."

But it's not due to people ignoring safety rules, said Tall, noting he was unfamiliar with the defiant behavior cited in contract tracers notes, where were obtained by Columbia researchers..

"That doesn’t’ jive with what I’m seeing here," Tall said. "In the last month or so, things have gotten better. We are doing what we have to do to stay as healthy as we can while we await the vaccine."

Meanwhile, Tall stressed, the business community is hurting.

"The restaurants aren't open. Many churches are closed," Tall said. "The economic distress of our community is very high. We'd like to return to normal, but we can't right now ... This is an extremely troubling time."

In a first since the pandemic hit, a judge issued a temporary restraining order last week against the U.P.'s Café Rosetta after the eatery defied state epidemic orders, staying open when it wasn't supposed to. When news broke Thursday about the judge's order, community members flooded the eatery, whose owners have said they had no choice but to stay open given the $34,000 in fines they face.

"As a single mom, newly divorced with six kids that only knew welfare, my Calumet restaurant gave me a place to focus my energy and sense of pride," co-owner Amy Heikkinen wrote in a Detroit News Op-ed.

"We were faced with a choice: Close the doors and lose our business forever or remain open and defend our business and possibly lose it anyway," Heikkinen wrote. "When you have six children, the choice is simple: You take care of the family."

Tall, meanwhile, expressed frustration with state health officials, saying they are not sharing data regarding what impact, if any, restaurants have had on the spread of the virus and whether or not shutting them has helped any.

"I am mostly hearing that closing the restaurants is not having the effect that was intended," Hall said.

In a statement to the Free Press, the MDHHS said: "It is more difficult for COVID-19 case investigators to associate outbreaks with settings such as restaurants where people are coming and going and where there are different customers there every day — as opposed to tracking outbreaks to settings such as long-term care facilities where the population remains relatively stable and there is frequent testing."

Meanwhile, in the U.P., restaurants are clinging to life.

"I've heard a lot (of business owners) who are saying that if this continues that they will be closed forever," Tall said. "They’re hanging on. But in the U.P., that’s what we do."

Dr. Lorinser, who is the medical director in four U.P. counties, believes most of the people in the communities he oversees are compliant with mask mandates and follow social distancing rules. He notes that there are rebellious types who openly defy mandates, but they are the exception, not the norm, he said.

"I think the majority of the people (in the U.P.) have done very well," Lorinser said. "Those in defiance are the minority."

Still, given the wild nature of the virus, he noted, the rebellious few can cause a lot of damage.

"Let's say the bad apples are 1 percent," Lorinser speculated. "If they happen to be the super-spreaders, all you need is one bad person at a bar or a restaurant or a wedding — and off you go."

More young kids getting sick

The Columbia University project obtained state data that includes details on the virus’s disproportionate impact on children, healthcare and front-line workers, and first responders — information that so far has not been publicly released by state and local health officials. Overall COVID numbers have been publicly released, but not detailed demographic data that details where the outbreaks are occurring, and who exactly is getting sick. This data was obtained through FOIA requests by Columbia's research team.

Here's a breakdown of infections among some of the hardest hit in the U.P. in the latest surge, between Oct. 6 and Dec. 22:

808 health care workers 103 first responders 593 other essential workers 1,388 children, more than half in elementary school

According to Lorinser, who has advocated for keeping schools open, about 85% of U.P. students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade are attending school in person. While in-class instruction is not mandatory, he said, the vast majority of families in the U.P. are choosing to send their kids to school, rather than have them learn virtually at home.

"I think they're safe," he said of the schools. "Everyone has the option of doing virtual school — but from my discussions with some of the superintendents, 85-90% of kids are electing (in-person instruction), even during the flare."

Lorinser doesn't believe schools are the source of outbreaks, but that rather members of the community are bringing the virus into the schools.

The CDC, meanwhile, is cautioning pediatricians that the numbers of childhood infections has been steadily increasing, and says that asymptomatic children can spread the virus.

In the U.P., 9 percent of COVID-19 cases involve children, which mirrors national data. It was during the peak of the U.P. surge in late November when an increasing number of elementary school-aged children — between kindergarten and eighth grades — caught the virus.

The CDC says that the true number of childhood COVID-19 infections is not known due to "lack of widespread testing," but cautions that the numbers "have been steadily rising since March." So have childhood hospitalizations.

"About 1 in 3 children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States were admitted to the intensive care unit, similar to the rate among adults," the CDC states.

Nationwide, 211 children ages 17 and under have died of COVID-19. At least one was from the U.P. — a child under the age of 9 from Delta County.

MDHHS, which has offered very little information about statewide child COVID-19 deaths, says it recognizes the importance of collecting COVID-19 data and sharing it with the public. On its website, the agency, for example, provides data on overall cases, deaths, hospitalizations, and breaks down infections by race and age.

But detailed information isn't made public, such as reports prepared by epidemiologists and contract tracing interview notes.

"Any data that could result in disclosing personal health information cannot be released for confidentiality reasons," the state health agency stated. "Reports are prepared by regional epidemiologists in some circumstances to provide to local health officers. This provides additional information on how the pandemic is affecting their jurisdiction and may assist local health departments in implementing measures that will help slow the spread of the virus in their area. Often, these reports for local health contain levels of detail that may be personally identifiable."

The contact tracers' interview notes that were obtained by Columbia were often redacted to protect peoples' identities and did not include names or other identifiers.

Family members biggest threat

In the U.P., epidemiologists had difficulty determining the original source of infections during the surge, with more than 25 percent of cases in recent weeks having no identified source.

But what they did learn is that a big chunk of people got sick at home.

By far the biggest complicating factor, epidemiologists found, was household transmission of the virus between family members, with roughly 20 percent of those infected reporting exposing someone where they lived. That mirrors the rest of Michigan and the U.S., where household transmission of the virus is driving the wintertime surge.

The deer hunting season, meanwhile, didn't appear to contribute to the U.P. surge. Neither did Thanksgiving, if statistics are any indication.

The U.P. numbers appeared to peak around Nov. 11 — four days before the start of the hunting season, They have been relatively stable since Nov. 21 — three days after a new pandemic order took effect and banned indoor dining, closed bars and schools and limited gatherings.

Local health officials have been hesitant to credit the public health order with the drop in numbers, saying COVID cases were starting to go down even before the order took effect. Here's what the U.P. data shows:

Nov. 10: 376 cases Nov. 17: 251 cases Nov. 18: order takes effect Nov. 24: 218 cases Dec. 1: 212 cases Dec. 8 : 142 cases Dec. 15: 86 cases

In a testy exchange of emails, Dr. Lorinser and Scott Schreiber, a regional epidemiologist with the MDDHS, argued over whether the pandemic order helped bring the U.P.'s infection numbers down.

Lorinser maintained that "smart people" led to a drop in COVID-19 infections, and that there has been "little impact from the orders themselves."

Schreiber disagreed, stating that it's "difficult to explain the continued decrease ... without giving credit to the epidemic order. Similar decreases have also been seen in the majority of the rest of the state, further supporting the impact of the epidemic order."

Lorinser isn't convinced.

"Sorry I don't support but will diplomatically and publically [sic] say I respect (the order)" Lorinser wrote on Dec. 18.

Lorinser has not been convinced that the U- P COVID data supports the statewide decision to close high schools, bars and restaurants.

"This was a statewide decision that I was not involved in so I'd prefer not to attempt to explain it," he has previously stated.

Last week, however, Lorinser acknowledged the following:

"In my experience in the UP, a lot of the bars don’t follow the rules, but a lot of the restaurants do" he said, later adding. "Let's take reasonable precautions ... people could learn to smile with a mask on. If they open up the restaurants and bars, follow the rules man. The rules are decent."

But many in the U.P. are still skeptical about the data.

Take for example retired papermill worker Dwaine Taylor, a President Trump supporter who nearly died of the virus in September when he was placed on a ventilator because he couldn't breathe. He was scared and feared not seeing his wife and children again. But he still doubts the data and is skeptical about media reports, particularly the ones about the number of COVID-19 deaths, which has now topped 337,000 in the U.S.

“There are a lot of people who don’t beat it,” Taylor told Bridge Magazine. “But a lot of them had underlying conditions. The virus might have weakened them, but it probably didn’t kill them.”

Perhaps more skeptical is 23-year-old Brittany Zeller, who in late October met up with a high school friend at a Manistique bar. Neither of the bartenders was wearing masks, nor were the dozen-plus customers.

“I don’t think it’s a problem here,” Zeller told Bridge of COVID-19, adding: “It’s a bullshit thing.”

Hot spots

The Columbia research team found significant testing and compliance issues at a number of regional hotspots across the U.P., including a shipyard, paper mill, juvenile center and prison.

A Wisconsin shipyard where many Michiganders work took an especially big hit during this latest surge.

Workers from Delta and Menominee counties routinely travel to the Fincantieri Marinette Marine, a shipyard in Wisconsin that builds ships for the Navy. Four cases were reported in April, and a dozen employees were quarantined. By November, the number had swelled to more than 150 cases, data shows, and a full tally still isn't known.

The Marquette Branch Prison is another hotspot. As of Dec. 15, the state prison had 849 COVID-19 cases, with one employee telling contract tracers that “inmates were brought into the prison and were not properly tested/quarantined” on Oct. 14.

In a statement, the Michigan Department of Corrections said prisoners were tested upon arrival at Marquette and all tested negative. They were “quarantined properly,” the MDOC said, and only started testing positive more than two weeks after their arrival.

The Bay Pines Juvenile Center was another problem spot. In October, half its inmate population — 16 inmates total — and 13 staff members tested positive, though some employees still went to work infected. One was a prison teacher who was told to "partially quarantine" but still go to work after being exposed to a positive co-worker. A prison guard also worked while infected.

The region's largest employer, the Escanaba paper mill, which employs 885 people, also was cited in contract tracing notes for allegedly not taking testing seriously. Records indicate that six cases were reported over September and October at the mill, though one employee said many people have worked while infected and many others come to work sick but refuse to get tested.

A spokesperson for the Escanaba mill said that the company has a COVID-19 testing center on site and mandates that infected employees quarantine. The mill did not respond to requests for further comment.

More than 12,000 Michigan residents have died since March from the novel coronavirus.

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