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COVID variant cases confirmed at two other Michigan prisons

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Inmate transfers were responsible for new cases of a highly contagious coronavirus variant at prisons in Macomb County and a Jackson prison health facility, a Michigan corrections official said Friday.

Michigan Department of Corrections officials said late Tuesday they were working to contain an outbreak of the B.1.1.7 variant after 90 cases were confirmed in the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia. There were 88 cases among inmates and two cases among prison workers with the first case was confirmed to a prison employee. 

On Friday, the Department of Corrections said 31 new inmate variant cases were confirmed at Bellamy Creek, bringing the total to 121 cases overall there. It appears to be the nation's largest cluster of the United Kingdom variant in the United States. 

"This is not unexpected, given the increased infectiousness of the variant and the closed population of susceptible, unvaccinated people in the prison," Stephen Hawes, chairman of the University of Washington's Department of Epidemiology, told The Detroit News on Wednesday.

Among the 47 new confirmed cases of the variant in the corrections system were 14 that Michigan Department of Correction spokesman Chris Gautz said had been carried by Bellamy Creek prisoners who were transferred to the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township and two to the Duane Waters Health Center in Jackson.

"Some COVID positive prisoners were moved to Macomb and our health center in Jackson to COVID positive units there before we learned of the variant," Gautz said in an email.

"The variant cases at those two sites are only from prisoners who came there with the variant from Bellamy Creek," Gautz said. "And they were placed in housing units with other already COVID positive prisoners, so they couldn’t spread it to any of those prisoners and we have not had any staff there at those two facilities test positive for the variant so they have not spread it to staff."

Gautz said 28 Bellamy Creek prisoners were transferred to Macomb, while two went to the Waters facility. "So both of the prisoners at (Waters) had the variant and 14 of the 28 now at Macomb have tested for the variant," he said.

No employees were confirmed positive among the new cases, Gautz said.

"So the positive sign to us is that there has been no spread to the other two facilities where these prisoners with the variant went so far with the testing," he said. "There are still more tests coming in."

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin didn't immediately indicate how many tests are still pending from the prison facilities. One hundred tests were pending as of Wednesday.

According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only Florida and California have more confirmed cases than those found in Bellamy Creek. 

Michigan health officials said Friday 211 total cases of the variant had been identified. Aside from the cases found in Michigan's prisons, Washtenaw County had the most cases, 43, with Wayne County second with 10 cases.

ghunter@detroitnews.com