Variants, school outbreaks raising fears of COVID surge

Infection rates are rising, leading some to wonder if Michigan reopened too soon.

By most measures, the COVID-19 pandemic is getting worse in Michigan. Daily new infection numbers have been rising for over a month – from an average of 845 a day on February 18 to almost 3.5 times that on Tuesday. Hospitalizations and the state’s positivity rate are increasing as well.

But two other trends are raising concerns about the state of the pandemic in Michigan, and leading some to wonder whether state officials have pushed too hard to return to normal.

Variants: Two variants of the coronavirus have been identified in Michigan this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there have now been 986 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in Michigan and two cases of the B.1.351 variant.

Both variants have been reported to be 50% more contagious than dominant strains in the state. Some studies have suggested the B.1.1.7 variant is also 100% deadlier.

That’s concerning to health experts who say the state might want to consider pulling back on its efforts to reopen the economy.

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“Michigan is a big concern for us because it could be a canary in the mine,” said Ali H. Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington. He was interviewed by the Detroit News. “States are opening up so fast assuming that the vaccine will catch up, but the vaccine is slow because there are no supplies.”

Michigan currently has the second highest number of coronavirus variants in the U.S., outpaced only by Florida.

School Outbreaks: Another worrying trend is the rising number of outbreaks at schools in Michigan. The number of people infected in K-12 outbreaks jumped 30% in the past week. The state reports that there were 165 new and ongoing school-based outbreaks as of Monday.

That comes as state leaders are pushing for every school to return to in-person classes. Currently, 97% of schools have some amount of live instruction and officials told Bridge Michigan they have no intention to pause in-person learning again.

Officials “want schools to be able to remain open for in-person learning and for students to be involved in extracurricular activities, including sports,” said state health spokesperson Lynn Sutfin.

However, that’s causing some abrupt starts and stops at districts as outbreaks force schools to move to remote education to avoid more infections. That happened in Portage last month after infections were tracked to Portage Central Elementary.

Vaccines: Many officials are placing their hopes on the rising rates of vaccinations in the state. As of Monday, 16.5% of Michigan adults had been fully vaccinated.

That could help ward off some of the worst effects of the COVID-19 infections. Reports indicate that all three currently-available vaccines are at least partially effective against the variants. Also, even though most school children are too young to be vaccinated, their families can be, and that may prevent some transmission of the virus.

Still, officials urge people to continue doing the same things we’ve been doing to stop the virus.

“It’s really important for people to continue to do the same things — wearing masks, washing hands, socially distance — and getting the vaccine,” said Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun.

You can read more on the Detroit News and Bridge Michigan.

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