Seven cases of COVID-19 in Michigan are now associated with a Washtenaw County woman who traveled to the United Kingdom and brought back with her a new variation of the coronavirus known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
It’s more transmissible — spreading about 50% more efficiently than other known mutations of the virus — and health officials fear this form of the virus could become the predominant strain in the U.S. in March, causing more infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Most of the seven people who’ve contracted the virus since having close contact with the Washtenaw County woman live in connected households, said Susan Ringler Cerniglia, a spokeswoman for the county health department. It still isn’t known whether they, too, have the B.1.1.7 variant.
The Michigan Bureau of Laboratories is working on whole genome sequencing of their test samples to determine whether all eight people have the UK variant — a complex process that can take a week to complete.
“Everyone connected is in isolation or quarantine, as appropriate, and being monitored,” Ringler Cerniglia told the Free Press Tuesday.
The woman who has the confirmed case of the B.1.1.7 variant had a negative coronavirus test Jan. 1 in the United Kingdom, prior to traveling to the United States, Ringler Cerniglia said.
She returned to Washtenaw County on Jan. 3, and got negative COVID-19 test results on Jan. 4 and Jan. 6. She tested positive for the virus Jan. 8, and began isolating at that point, Ringler Cerniglia said.
Called the UK variant because that’s where it was first identified in September, this strain of the virus is not more deadly and isn’t known to make people more severely ill than other previously identified strains. But it does spread more easily.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday that 121 cases of the U.K. variant have been identified in 19 states.
If this becomes the dominant form of the virus nationally, the CDC warned Friday that it could “threaten strained health care resources, require extended and more rigorous implementation of public health strategies, and increase the percentage of population immunity required for pandemic control.”
Sarah Lyon-Callo, the state’s top epidemiologist, said during a news conference with reporters in early January, before the U.K. variant was detected in the state, that she is often asked what Michigan should do about it.
“I think of it as this virus has kind of stepped up its game a bit in terms of its ability to transmit between people,” she said. “Therefore, we need to step up our game in terms of wearing masks, keeping social distance and staying at least 6 feet apart from others, avoiding crowds, ventilating indoor spaces and washing our hands often.”
And it puts new urgency on vaccinating as many people as possible as quickly as it can be done.
“We obviously want to get the vaccine rolled out as fast as we can to protect people,” said Dr. Adam Lauring, an associate professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Michigan, in an interview earlier this month. “We know what we need to do to control the virus, we’re just going to need to do even better just to sort of achieve the same level of control.”
“What concerns me,” he said, “is that we haven’t been doing a good job, and the job just got harder.”
Tighter restrictions were put in place in November in Michigan, closing in-person dining at restaurants and bars, canceling in-person high school and college classes and putting a pause on organized sports.
The measures reduced rising rates of new infections and hospitalizations. The seven-day average of new daily cases dropped on Monday to 2,108, its lowest point since late October. Since the pandemic began, 538,377 Michiganders have been infected and 13,824 have died, according to state data.
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.