Three cases of UK COVID-19 variant linked to UM, officials say

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Three cases of the United Kingdom COVID-19 virus variant that is believed to be more contagious than the original virus have been linked to the University of Michigan and all three cases are related, university officials said Friday. 

The three cases include the first identified case of B.1.1.7. in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced that case last weekend. 

The first case involves a woman who tested positive for the variant after traveling to the U.K., where the variant is believed to have originated. Seven additional cases are linked to that woman, health officials said Thursday, and two of those contacts, both women, have also tested positive.

The women are in isolation and are experiencing either no symptoms or mild symptoms, UM said. Close contacts of those infected have been identified, tested and are in quarantine. 

"It is not yet known whether five other close contacts who have tested positive for COVID-19 are infected with the variant," the release read. "All eight were directed to isolate."

MDHHS and the Washtenaw County Health Department detected the two additional cases of the variant at a UM lab.

The strain of the virus, first detected in Britain in December, was discovered through UM's regular testing at the Ann Arbor campus, officials said. Data suggest B.1.1.7.  spreads more quickly and easily than the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has been circulating for months. Officials initially believed the variant doesn't make people sicker than the initial virus or increase the likelihood of death. However, there is some evidence the variant carries a higher risk of death than the original strain, the British government’s chief scientific adviser said Friday – though he stressed the data is uncertain.

“While not unexpected, this means being even more vigilant with the public health measures that are known to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” says Preeti Malani, UM’s chief health officer. “The Community Surveillance and Tracking Program offers convenient testing to all members of the University of Michigan community.” 

University health officials say they are working closely with state and local public health partners and are continuing to recommend that all undergraduate and graduate students in the Ann Arbor area be tested weekly.

MDHHS this week issued new guidelines advising colleges and universities to give weekly COVID-19 tests to students, even if they live off-campus. UM requires weekly testing for undergraduate students living on campus or coming to campus for classes, work, research or to access any facilities.

Mutations to the virus that causes COVID-19 are rapidly popping up and health officials say the pandemic could get worse unless people do more to curb cases. So far, vaccines seem to remain effective against the new variants, but the longer it takes to vaccinate people, the more likely it is that a virus that can elude defenses could emerge.

On Friday, a report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the variant's higher rate of transmission would lead to "more cases, increasing the number of persons overall who need clinical care, exacerbating the burden on an already strained health care system and resulting in more deaths."

The variant is estimated to have emerged in September, and the UK first reported it on Dec. 14, about nine months after Michigan disclosed its first cases of COVID-19.

“Because this variant is more contagious, we have been expecting more B.1.1.7 cases following Michigan’s first case being identified on Saturday,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at the state health department.

Health officials say more variant cases could be identified in the state.

“We are watching this situation as closely as possible,” says Dr. Juan Luis Marquez, medical director with the Washtenaw County Health Department. “And we ask everyone to continue to do everything they can to prevent transmission — mask, distance, avoid crowds or gatherings, clean your hands frequently, and follow isolation or quarantine guidance carefully.”

The health department is also working closely with the University of Michigan to prevent the spread of the virus. 

“While not unexpected, this means being even more vigilant with the public health measures that are known to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Malani.

State officials advise residents to continue social distancing, wear a mask around others, wash hands often and ventilate indoor spaces. 

Staff Writer Mark Hicks and the Associated Press contributed to this report.