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After weeks of positive COVID news, Michigan faces more peril

Following weeks of hope with a downshift in cases and a rollout of COVID vaccines, Michigan’s gains against the virus appear to have stalled.

Coronavirus infections and hospitalization levels have been mostly positive in recent weeks. But the latest state data suggest these trends may have reached a plateau.

 

That prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to say the state will hold off, for now, on loosening COVID-19 restrictions. On Wednesday, the state reported 4,326 new infections, the highest number yet in January — and the most in three weeks. The jump in cases follows steady declines in early December through the holidays. 

Whitmer, whose health director had put restrictions on some businesses like restaurants and bars through Jan. 15, has said any decision on relaxing them before that date will have to wait a few more days to see if there is a post-holiday surge in infections. She said aggregated mobility data collected by technology companies showed an increase in travel around the holidays which could spur more infections.

“I anticipate some more days of data before a determination is made on what the next steps look like,” Whitmer said.

Since hitting a low of 1,600 new cases on both Dec. 27 and 28, the seven-day average of daily coronavirus infections has risen daily, breaking a three-week decline. But the case counts have been highly variable, from 4,200 on Dec. 30 to 2,300 on Tuesday, with no clear pattern emerging.

At the same time, the percent of coronavirus tests coming back as positive, which had fallen to 7.1 percent on Christmas, hit 10.3 percent on Tuesday, following 15 days below 10 percent. Higher positive rates suggest greater community spread of the virus.

 

Meanwhile, coronavirus-related hospitalizations, which peaked at nearly 4,300 on Dec. 2 and fell steadily to 2,698 on Jan. 4, have since risen twice in the last week before inching downward to 2,657 on Wednesday.

At the same time, case rates and hospitalizations are largely below the national rates and those of nearby states Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois.

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Meanwhile, state health officials said a second coronavirus variant may have already arrived in Michigan.

The B.1.1.7. variant, identified last month in the United Kingdom, has already been identified in a handful of states. 

“I don't think we would be surprised if it was here already, and we expect that it could have significant impacts on the spread of the disease in the state,” state epidemiologist Sarah Lyon-Callo said in a call with reporters Wednesday. Her concerns echoed those of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The state is monitoring for variations of the coronavirus, Lyon-Callo said.

Specimens of COVID tests sent to the state laboratory have been genetically sequenced since the beginning of the pandemic in March, said Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

However, specimens from tests that are sent to other labs — hospitals or private labs, for example — are sequenced only if they are passed on to the state lab for a particular reason. Given that B.1.1.7 was first identified in Great Britain, a lab should forward specimens from a person being tested who also recently traveled to Great Britain, Lyon-Callo, the epidemiologist, said.

The new variant hasn't been detected in Michigan specimens so far, she said.

Lyon-Callo stressed that scientists are “very early in our efforts to know what this variant means.” 

For now, it appears that the variant doesn’t cause more severe disease, but it spreads more easily — about 1.5 times as fast as the COVID virus that has already killed nearly 13,000 Michiganders.

“I think of it as this virus has kind of stepped up its game a bit in terms of its ability to transmit between people,” Callo-Lyon said. “Therefore, we need to step up our game in terms of wearing masks, keeping social distance and staying at least six feet apart from others, avoiding crowds, ventilating indoor spaces and washing our hands often.”

One preliminary study suggests, too, that the variant is more likely than the current virus to affect people younger than 20.

“The faster that we can get the vaccine out, and we can be providing people a measure of immunity to this virus, the better off we’ll be in dealing with the (B.1.1.7.) variant,” Lyon-Callo said.

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