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Michigan ranks second in COVID variant cases as state hits ‘tipping point’

Heather Blankenship holds a slide
A coronavirus variant has gained an undeniable foothold in Michigan. Heather Blankenship, of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, holds a slide that is scanned by the sequencing machines that give a genetic readout of a virus at the state lab in Lansing. (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)

Related: Michigan schools reopened. Then came a spike in COVID outbreaks

The latest outbreak of a more contagious coronavirus variant — one linked to middle- and high school basketball games in February in Grand Ledge — has now grown to 47 suspected cases.

And while just two of the 47 cases were genetically sequenced to confirm the B.1.1.7. variant in this community northwest of Lansing, the state now has at least 616 confirmed cases of the variant across Michigan so far, according to the latest data by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CDC data may lag: State health officials Tuesday put the number even higher, at 634 confirmed B.1.1.7 cases.)


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Only one other state — Florida — has more cases of the so-called United Kingdom (U.K.) variant than Michigan, according to the CDC.

Variants are concerning to public health officials because they appear to spread more rapidly than the original virus that produced the pandemic. There’s also emerging research that suggests that the U.K. variant may be more deadly

The COVID vaccines now authorized for emergency use in the U.S. appear generally effective against the variants, but to what extent is still not clear.

Michigan also confirmed this month its first case of the B.1.3.5. variant, what has also been called the South African variant.

Expect the variant numbers to grow, health officials told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday, in part because the confirmed cases of the variant represent only a small sample of confirmed cases. And as the state moves into a season that includes spring breaks and increased travel, Michigan is approaching a “tipping point,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, senior public health physician at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“What I’m concerned about is this confluence of events,” she said.

On the positive side, a growing number of people are becomingvaccinated across the state. As of Tuesday, more than 2 million Michiganders had been vaccinated, according to state data. And with warmer weather, more people will move back out into the open air, making it more difficult for the virus to spread, Bagdasarian said.

But at the same time, COVID fatigue continues to wear down patience to continue following COVID protocols, including social distancing and the wearing of masks. Spring break will undoubtedly mean out-of-state travel and increased transmission.

A recent loosening of state restrictions also means more entertainment venues are reopening, and sports have restarted.

“The goal is to make sure that the things that drive down transmission outweigh the things that drive up transmission,” Bagdasarian said.

Expect the B.1.1.7 variant to grow as a percentage of the overall coronavirus case trends, however they bend, said Dr. Adam Lauring, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan.

That’s likely to happen because the variant spreads more quickly than the virus that first hit Michigan one year ago, he said. 

“We're getting rid of the other viruses quicker than we're getting rid of the B1.1.7. It will become a bigger piece of the pie that's left,” he said.

But Lauring, Bagdasararian and others have said Michigan’s standing as having the second most B.1.1.7 cases in the nation may not tell the whole story, as local health departments in the state have been more focused than those in many other states in detecting variants. 

More than half of the state’s B.1.1.7 cases were first linked in February to an outbreak at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia and some related facilities after stepped up testing in the prison system, according to state data. As of Tuesday, 380 cases were reported in the prison system.

All were linked in some way to the original Bellamy outbreak, according to Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the state health department.

In Grand Ledge, the Barry-Eaton District Health Department said it will continue pop-up testing clinics for the public Wednesday at Grand Ledge Public Schools.

Most of the Grand Ledge cases (29 of 47) involve middle and high school students, coaches and additional students and staff exposed at a series of basketball games Feb. 18, said Anne Barna, spokesperson for the health department.

The remaining cases are among close contacts of these individuals, she said.

The health department isn’t calling for a halt to school sports, she noted. But parents must understand that sports participation comes with increased risks, with students in close contact and with labored breathing in events that don’t always require masks.

“It’s a risk,” Barna said. “It’s a controlled risk, and we understand that that risk may be fine for some families.”

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