COVID-19 variant cases growing, 'very concerning,' Michigan's medical chief says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan has now confirmed 17 cases of the new COVID-19 variant that is believed to be more contagious, a development the state's chief medical executive called "very concerning."

Thirteen of the infected individuals live in Washtenaw County and four live in Wayne County, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun revealed Monday during a press conference. The state reported its first case of the COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.7., on Jan. 16, nine days earlier.

The Washtenaw cases all appear to be in the Ann Arbor area. Wayne County has yet to indicate where its cases are located but said two of the four confirmed cases involved international travel. Wayne County officials are also looking into four additional COVID-19 positive cases in people who had close contact with those who tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant.  

"There are likely more cases that we have not yet identified, and there’s possibly spread of the variant that is happening right now," Khaldun added. "This variant is more easily spread from person to person. And that means for any given case, it will likely infect more people and lead to more spread.

"This means possibly more cases overall, more hospitalizations and deaths."

She labeled the variant "very concerning" and said people need to think differently and "more aggressively" about combating the virus.

Khaldun's comments came during a Monday news conference at which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her new health director, Elizabeth Hertel, provided an update on the state's response to COVID-19. The press conference came three days after Robert Gordon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, abruptly resigned, and the governor announced restaurants will be able to offer indoor dining on Feb. 1.

In another Monday move, President Joe Biden kept in place travel restrictions on non-American passengers on flights from much of Europe, the United Kingdom and Brazil that former President Donald Trump sought to loosen starting Tuesday. Biden is reinstating a ban that suspends entry to nearly all foreign nationals who have been in any of the countries on the restricted list at any point during the 14 days before their scheduled travel to the United States.

"With the pandemic worsening and more ... contagious variants spreading, this isn't the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel," said Jen Psaki, Biden's press secretary, at a press conference.

Biden also added South Africa to the restricted travel list because of the emergence of the contagious variant B. 1351 that experts consider more dangerous than B.1.1.7, the variant linked to the United Kingdom.

“We have concern about the mutation that’s in South Africa," top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told "CBS This Morning." "We’re looking at it very actively. It is clearly a different and more ominous than the one in the U.K., and I think it’s very prudent to restrict travel of non-citizens.”

In addition, international travelers to the United States starting Tuesday must provide proof of a negative test within three days of travel to airlines prior to departure, according to Biden's latest order.

Overall, Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates have decreased. Last week, the state reported 12,535 new cases, the lowest weekly total in 14 weeks.

Hospitalizations tied to the virus and the rate of tests bringing positive results also continued to drop in Michigan. As of Monday, the state reported 1,492 adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19, down 31% from the total two weeks earlier.

Last week, 6.3% of the state's cornavirus tests brought positive results, the lowest rate in 13 weeks.

Michigan reported 3,011 new cases and 35 new deaths for Sunday and Monday, pushing the overall totals to 551,080 cases and 14,326 deaths. As of Friday, 463,106 people are considered recovered.

In recent weeks, the variant has drawn the attention of state and local health officials. It first emerged in the United Kingdom in September, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This variant is associated with more rapid transmission, but there is no evidence to suggest the variant has any impact on vaccine effectiveness, according to the CDC. The federal agency is reviewing data to determine whether it's deadlier.

The variant cases in Washtenaw County spurred the University of Michigan on Saturday to suspend athletics for two weeks. In a letter to university officials, the state Department of Health and Human Services recommended the suspension.

"To date, B 1.1.7 variant cases have been confirmed or (are) suspected in members of multiple UM athletic teams," Khaldun wrote. "As you know, compared to the wild-type virus, the B.1.1.7 variant is approximately 50 percent more transmissible, leading to faster spread of the virus, potentially increased numbers of cases and additional hospitalizations and deaths.

"Therefore, continued identification of this variant, particularly in a campus setting, requires additional levels of public health intervention."

On Saturday, the Washtenaw County Health Department announced potential public exposure sites. The department recommended immediate testing for anyone who was at the Meijer on Ann Arbor-Saline Road from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Jan. 17 or at the Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 17.

"Everyone should be aware of this new variant and limit any possible exposures to COVID-19," the department wrote. "This includes not gathering with people outside of your household and limiting more risky behaviors where social distancing and wearing masks cannot be consistently done."

In Wayne County, the highest populated county in Michigan, health officials said the four confirmed variant cases involved two men and two women ranging in age from 35 years old to 42, and one of them appeared to be from another country. The four individuals were advised to quarantine for 14 days and were retested to confirm the new strain of COVID-19.

The individuals include a 41-year-old man who recently arrived on an international flight and since has left the country and a 35-year-old male who recently has returned from international travel. 

The other two cases are a 42-year-old female and a 35-year-old female. No other details were provided on the two individuals.

The four other suspected variant-positive cases have been retested, according to Wayne County. The results from those procedures are not yet available.

“As we administer our vaccine, it is important for people to mask up, wash their hands frequently and avoid large groups,” said Dr. Mouhanad Hammami, chief health strategist for Wayne County.

“We are vaccinating people as fast as vaccine is available to us. Until then, we need to keep doing the safe practices we know help lower the risk of catching or spreading the virus.”

Staff Writer David Goricki contributed.