State worker tests positive for COVID-19 variant as Michigan cases grow

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The COVID variant that first originated in the United Kingdom continues to spread in Michigan and has now been detected in a state prison near Lansing.

There are 61 people in Michigan who have contracted the B.1.1.7. variant, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday. The majority of the cases, 39, are within the University of Michigan community, the Washtenaw County Health Department said. 

Signage at the Detroit Health Department on Mack Avenue for COVID-19 testing in Detroit on Feb. 1, 2021.

In addition, the variant that is believed to be more contagious than COVID-19 has also been detected for the first time in a Michigan Department of Corrections facility. MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz said Wednesday an employee at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia tested positive.

All prisoners and employees there will now be tested daily as opposed to the weekly testing that has been the norm. The regimen will include a daily rapid test. If a test result is positive, a PCR test will be administered and sent to the state lab for testing for the variant. This regimen will also apply to certain prisoners and staff at Duane Waters Health Center in Jackson and Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township. The state said in a news release that prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 were transferred to those two facilities prior to the variant being detected.

“The MDOC will be taking extra steps to identify where this variant is present amongst staff and the prisoner population and we will continue to do everything we can to keep the prisoners, our staff and the community safe,” MDOC Director Heidi Washington said in the release.

The B.1.1.7 variant was first detected in Michigan in a UM student who had traveled abroad.

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Since then, other cases have been detected within the UM community but they have not all been traced to the original case, said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, spokesperson for the Washtenaw County Health Department. Some have traveled internationally, some domestically and some have not traveled at all.

Ringler-Cerniglia said the health department began sequencing positive COVID-19 tests in late January and continued over two weekends. Two batches of sequencing have still not been returned. But the first batch showed the variant has not been found in the broader Washtenaw County community, she said.

Meanwhile, state health officials said Wednesday the spread of the variant includes six cases in Wayne County, four in Calhoun County, one case each in Macomb, Kent, Sanilac, Van Buren, Charlevoix and Eaton counties, along with two cases in Detroit.

Ionia County is not listed as having a case because cases are assigned to the county where the infected person lives, said Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Gautz declined to name the county where the employee lives because "That would potentially reveal who it is based on whether they live."

No deaths have been linked to the variant,  Sutfin added. And it was unclear how many, if any, hospitalizations have been linked to the variant.

"Often it’s a week or so after an individual receives the positive test that the sample can complete the sequencing process," Sutfin said. 

She also said while the variant is believed to be more contagious, "There has been no indication that it affects the clinical outcomes or disease severity compared to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has been circulating across the United States for months."