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Facing new COVID variant, University of Michigan students asked to stay home

Worried about a new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 spreading through the University of Michigan campus, college and health officials are pleading with students to stay home through Feb. 7.

The recommendation, made Wednesday afternoon by U-M and the Washtenaw County Health Department, comes as the number of cases of the B.1.1.7  variant rose to 14 in Washtenaw County, out of 20 identified statewide.

The request amounts to a plea from officials who fear cases could spiral out of control without increased intervention.

The recommendation comes with a lot of loopholes. Students can still leave home for in-person classes (about 10 percent of U-M’s classes are face-to-face) and work, food, medicine and church services. And the request carries no penalties for those who ignore it.

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A release from the Washtenaw County Health Department and the university warned that “more stringent actions may be necessary if this outbreak continues to grow and additional variant clusters are identified.”

Already, on Saturday, university sports teams were suspended until Feb. 7 because of the outbreak of the new variant. 

U-M students living on or near campus also are encouraged to participate in free weekly testing provided by the university. Undergraduates living on or coming to campus for classes are required by the university to be tested weekly.

Since the beginning of the winter term, increased testing of U-M students has identified 175 COVID-19 cases among students in the U-M community, 14 of which have been determined to be the B.1.1.7 variant.

Another six B.1.1.7. cases have been identified in Wayne County, Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told Bridge Michigan Wednesday. 

The earlier four people in Wayne County were described by local health officials as two men and two women in their 30s and 40.

The Wayne and Washtenaw cases are not all linked, but appear to be from “multiple introductions,” Sutfin told Bridge .

The spread of the variant comes as case rates and deaths from the coronavirus have dropped statewide for the virus that has been linked to 14,441 deaths as of Wednesday.

The B.1.17. variant doesn’t appear to cause more severe symptoms and early indications from both Pfizer and Moderna suggest their vaccines are effective against it.

Dr. Arnold Monto, a University of Michigan epidemiologist who chaired the federal committee vetting the safety of the two vaccines, has told Bridge that the vaccines may need occasionally tweaked to keep up with the expected changes in the coronavirus — much like flu vaccines are tweaked each year.

“Fortunately, coronaviruses don't change as much as flu viruses change. They have an error correcting way in their replication cycle,” Monto said Wednesday during a presentation with the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Still, the B.1.1.7. variant appears to spread 1.5 times faster than the coronavirus originally detected in China in 2019. Additionally, while current COVID testing detects a coronavirus infection, it takes days to sequence the specimen to determine whether the virus is the variant. 

“That’s a bad combination,” said University of Michigan spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald. “We’re emphasizing the need to be really careful.”

Meanwhile, only labs — the state’s lab and a lab within U-M’s School of Public Health — are conducting genetic sequencing and tracking it, meaning only a sliver of COVID specimens are being tested. That means the variant is likely spreading without being detected.

 “We are very concerned about the potential for this variant to spread quickly,” Jimena Loveluck, health officer for Washtenaw County, said in a release. “We are working closely with the university to take coordinated steps to control the current outbreak and understand the situation more fully.”

The soft lockdown continues a topsy-turvy school year for Michigan colleges, in which many have lurched between in-person and online classes. In October, U-M students faced a similar stay-home request.  All colleges were shut from Nov. 15 to the beginning of winter semesters in January, under orders of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

In November, U-M announced it would close its dorms for the winter semester and urged students to stay in their home towns and take classes online.

The hope, Fitzgerald said, is that the recommendation will “minimize non-essential gatherings … [until] we can get a better handle on this new variant.”

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