Michigan is in another coronavirus surge and hospitals are again on the front line, but this time they have a new type of patient: younger and healthier.
Fred Romankewiz was on his way to get vaccinated, but he didn't feel well so he canceled the appointment and got a Covid-19 test instead. Though he'd been inches from the coronavirus finish line, the 54-year-old construction materials salesman from Lansing now tested positive.
"What really is frustrating to me is it's been a year and what -- three months now, and I played it right to the tee. I mean, I did everything correct," said Romankewiz. "And then to have this happen."
Watching TV, responding to a steady stream of text messages and cracking jokes from his hospital bed in Lansing's Sparrow Hospital, Romankewiz said he feels upbeat about his prospects for a full recovery but that the virus laid him low.
"I felt like I went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson," he said. "I was absolutely physically exhausted. I mean, I felt like I had been beat up, I felt like I had been in a car accident. I mean, it was crazy."
Romankewiz, who lives a healthy life and has no underlying conditions, said he contracted the virus from his 19-year-old-son, Andy. His wife, Betsy, who is fully vaccinated, also got the virus but suffered minor symptoms.
Jim Dover, CEO and president of Sparrow Health System, a large health care provider in central Michigan, said two things are driving the current surge: pandemic fatigue and mutations in the coronavirus that have made it more contagious and possibly more deadly.
"This variant is more virulent, and so therefore more infectious, and so easier to catch," said Dover. "Second is everyone is tired of wearing masks, so you will go out and see a mack of social distancing, the lack of wearing masks. The virus is invisible and people did not know they're walking through a cloud of Covid, and next thing you know, they're infected."
Dangerous variant spreading throughout the state
Both the B.1.351 and highly contagious B.1.1.7 variants have been identified in Michigan, but the B.1.1.7 strain is now spreading throughout the community. The state health department has identified more than 1,200 instances of the B.1.1.7 variant. The actual number is likely much higher considering the difficulty in determining which variant is causing cases throughout the state -- the samples have to be sent to a state lab for time-consuming DNA analysis to determine the variant.
At Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, one facility of the largest health care provider in the Wolverine State, the prevalence of the B.1.1.7 variant is clear.
Dr. Justin Skrzynski is a Covid hospitalist -- a title that didn't exist a year ago -- which means he specializes in the care of Covid patients. He said they send out a small sample of some of their cases to the state for DNA analysis.
"Right now, the regular Covid test we do -- that's still just showing Covid (or) no Covid," Skrzynski said, "but we do send a lot of those out to the state and we are seeing something like 40% of our patients now (with) B.1.1.7."
Tina Catron, 44, is under Skrzynski's care at Beaumont Health's Royal Oak facility. The mother of two said she thinks her family became infected with coronavirus through her children's soccer league.
"We're not 100% sure," she said of how they all got it, "but we think from the soccer field, with the parents, even though we're all masked up. From the sidelines, everyone's yelling. And I think what happened is my husband was with my son, his soccer game. And he brought it home."
Fighting the virus on many fronts
Health officials in Michigan have indicated both schools and youth sports are possible vectors for the virus. Catron says her 9-year-old, Levi, and 7-year-old, Jesse, had no symptoms and her husband got very sick but wasn't hospitalized.
She said was shocked to have to be hospitalized. She's healthy, active and has no underlying conditions but required hospitalization after developing pneumonia.
"It's almost like you feel like you're suffocating a little bit," she said, clearing her throat and still struggling to breathe.
At one point, Catron's oxygen levels dropped dangerously low, to 82% -- far below the normal range of 95% to 100%.
Michigan -- whose Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, experienced severe backlash from Republicans, business owners and others over her ongoing coronavirus restrictions -- is fighting the virus on several fronts. Vaccinations are rolling out, with about 600,000 Michiganders getting a shot every week; the economy is reopening, with some restrictions being lifted; and many are returning to pre-pandemic life with no masks or social distancing.
The daily hospital admission rate based on a seven-day rolling average for younger age groups in Michigan is up over the same averages during the massive autumn surge. For instance, the Michigan Health & Hospital Association reports that among those age 30-39, there were 26 daily admissions based on a seven-day average during the fall and winter surge, while today there are 43 admissions in the same age bracket.d
The 40-49 age bracket is seeing a similar rise, with 58 being admitted daily compared to 33 during the autumn surge. For those 60 and older, hospitalizations have declined sharply as vaccinations have risen.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says 35.2% of Michigan adults have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and 21.5% have been fully vaccinated.
Health workers were 'thrown a curveball'
Dr. Lynda Misra, medical director of the Covid unit at Beaumont Health's Royal Oak facility, said the rise in cases has been sharp and they are unsure where they are in this current surge. Whatever it brings, she said, she and her staff will meet the challenge -- but the virus has proved resilient and tricky to fight.
"Each surge has brought different challenges," she said. "We felt very strong that we had this disease under attack, but then we get thrown a curveball."
The weight and strain of the ongoing pandemic is evident when speaking to health care workers.
Lindsay Muenchen, a registered nurse in the Covid unit at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, said she had thought the worst was behind them. "The day I came in and saw that our unit was full of Covid patients again, it was really difficult," she said. "I had tears in my eyes."
Dora Hoppes, also at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, has worked as a registered nurse for 22 years. She said the past year has been the hardest.
Her voice cracked and emotions rose at the first question of our brief interview. When asked why it's so hard to speak about the past year, she motioned down the hallway. "I just saw it yesterday," she said, fighting back tears. "I had a patient that passed away, so it's very fresh, every day."
The stress of being constantly surrounded by so much sickness and death is the most difficult part of a job she loves, she said. "I would like to come into work now and just take care of a person who is here because they need their gallbladder out."
CNN's Linh Tran and Frank Bivona contributed to this report.