UM identifies additional virus variant cases, warns of more

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

A cluster of students at the University of Michigan tested positive for the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 over the weekend as cases in Washtenaw County continue to grow for the mutant form of the virus. 

Additional students have contracted the coronavirus variant, officials said Sunday, and they expect more students to test positive for it in the coming days. A "broad circle of students" who have had contact or have been associated with cases have also been tested, according to the statement, and officials are urging students, faculty and staff to take preventative measures. 

The message from officials comes after the university suspended all sports activities for two weeks on recommendations from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services due to the outbreak.

Five confirmed variant cases associated with sports teams at the university were announced on Saturday. 

"New information suggests that this strain might be more likely to cause severe illness. It is imperative that everyone be extra careful, and wear face coverings, avoid in-person gatherings, practice social distancing and get tested using the programs we have in place," officials said. 

"These measures are effective, but there is less margin for error with this more contagious version of COVID-19. This is a critical time for preventing spread of the virus – to protect one another’s health and preserve our ability to eventually resume more normal activities as we continue our efforts to vaccinate members of our community."

The school is also seeing an additional outbreak of the first COVID-19 virus on its campus. As of Jan. 18, UM has had 97 cases of COVID-19 in the past 28 days, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services coronavirus site.

An MDHSS memorandum dated and sent Jan. 23 to the Michigan athletic department says Michigan athletics are paused “until further notice and up to 14 days” because of confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant.

Health officials in Washtenaw County, where the university is located, also are urging anyone who visited specific retail sites in the county to get tested after cases were traced to people at the stores. The health department urged residents in Ann Arbor to immediately get tested if they visited Meijer on Saline Road between 9-10 a.m. Jan. 17 or Briarwood Mall, located at 100 Briarwood Circle, from 1-2 p.m., where the new variant was circulating.

As of Monday morning, there are eight cases of the variant virus in Washtenaw County, all associated with UM.

The first reported case of the variant in Michigan was identified on Jan. 16 in a woman part of the UM community. She recently traveled to the United Kingdom, where the variant originated, according to the statement by the Washtenaw Health Department. The person's close contacts have been informed and are in quarantine.

MDHHS, in a separate release, also detected a case of the B.1.1.7 variant in a Wayne County resident.