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COVID variant spreads in Michigan. Gretchen Whitmer mum on ex-health chief.

Even as more than 250,000 new COVID-19 vaccine doses were shipped to Michigan over the weekend and Monday, a more contagious variant of the virus, B.1.1.7., continues to spread, having now been detected in two southeast Michigan counties, officials said Monday.

 

The spread, while not unexpected, prompted the state’s chief medical executive to plead with Michiganders to “double-down” on masking and other coronavirus safety protocols.

The latest data on the variant was disclosed during an afternoon news conference that was overshadowed at times by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s repeated refusal to shed light on the sudden departure of the state’s top health official, Robert Gordon, on Friday. 

Genetic sequencing has confirmed the B.1.1.7. coronavirus variant — also known as the U.K. variant since it was first detected in the United Kingdom  — in 13 cases in Washtenaw County and four in Wayne County, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said at the press conference.

Sequencing samples of people who test positive for COVID can detect the variant and the two U.S. vaccines approved for emergency use against COVID-19 “appear to work” against it, Khaldun said.

“But this new, more easily transmissible virus is still very concerning,” she said. “We do not want to have to go backwards to slow the great progress we've already made.”

While case investigators have connected some of the cases, “there appear to be multiple introductions into the state, which was not unexpected,” Lynn Sutfin, MDHHS department spokesperson told Bridge Michigan in an email. 

Khaldun asked that anyone who has traveled recently to an area where the variant has been detected be tested, whether they feel ill or not. She also pleaded with Michiganders to cooperate with contact tracers if they call, and encouraged the use of the MiCOVID Alert app.

Even though Michigan researchers sequence and submit more positive COVID samples than most states to an international database that tracks the coronavirus, it sequences only a tiny fraction of the samples it receives. The state announced Saturday the first confirmed case of the variant in Michigan, but the state’s top epidemiologist said in early January that the variant had likely already arrived undetected.

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Khaldun repeated that Monday — much of the spread may be yet undetected. The variant may not cause more severe disease, but that it spreads about 1.5 times faster than the coronavirus that had first spread in Michigan, she said.

“That means that for any given case, it will likely affect more people and lead to more spread, and this means possibly more cases overall, more hospitalizations, deaths,” she said.

The variant was one of several topics Whitmer and administration officials addressed Monday, ranging from an update on vaccines, to a summary of assistance programs to help struggling Michiganders and ongoing efforts to work with the new Biden administration.

What Whitmer didn’t directly answer was the question she was asked most about: Why did Robert Gordon, director of the state health department, abruptly announce his departure in a brief Tweet Friday, even as the state seemed to be gaining ground against COVID-19?

The governor’s office declined to shed light on Gordon’s exit Friday and Whitmer remained mum on the details Monday, other than to thank Gordon for leading MDHHS “in unimaginable circumstances.”

“It has been grueling and on behalf of all the people in Michigan, I want to thank him for his service to our state,” she said, adding that he “worked hard to protect our public health” and he was pivotal in increasing food assistance programs during COVID.

Khaldun

But then Whitmer quickly pivoted to the woman she has named as Gordon’s successor, Elizabeth Hertel, calling her “another incredibly qualified person.”

Pressed with questions about Gordon, Whitmer responded:

“I don't think I have anything to add with regard to my comments about the former director … I'm grateful for his leadership,” and she again turned her comments to Hertel and to coronavirus.

Whitmer lauded the state’s improvement in vaccine distribution, and she was backed up Monday by the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Michigan now ranks 21st in the nation for delivering the first dose of vaccine, up from 45th earlier this month. In Michigan, 5,739 of every 100,000 Michiganders have received a first dose of the vaccine. That's more than one in every 20 residents.

Michigan also now ranks 20th in administered a second dose of the two-dose regimens as well, with 1,114 Michiganders having received a second dose, according to the data.

And there’s more good news for residents who have faced a maddening array of hospital websites, call centers and waiting lists to get scheduled for a vaccine, and the on-again-off-again availability of the vaccines.

Additionally, state data analyzed by Bridge shows another 255,250 doses of the vaccine have been shipped to Michigan since Saturday, bringing the total doses to nearly 1.5 million. Of those, 730,453 had been administered.

Bridge Michigan reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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