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MDHHS director, local health officials "concerned" over B.1.1.7 variant in Michigan

Posted at 8:31 PM, Feb 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-08 23:58:37-05

LANSING, Mich. — The new director of Michigan’s Health and Human Services Department says the spread of a new, more contagious strain of COVID-1, called B.1.1.7, is concerning.

“We are concerned about that because we know how much more easily transmissible this variant is than the original strain that we saw initially in Michigan,” said Elizabeth Hertel., MDHHS director. “Continuing to wear a mask, avoid large gatherings, and taking all of those precautionary measures that people have been already taking, and taking them serious, is going to be really important to help us further transmission of this variant across the state.”

Hertel made the comment in an interview with FOX17 late last week, shortly after Kalamazoo County identified its first case of the variant.

As of Monday, four more counties in West Michigan -- Kent, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, and Van Buren -- had discovered B.1.1.7 cases.

“If you have one person here that has it and another person there that has it and they’ve never had contact with each other, that probably means that that virus is circulating in the community to an extent,” said Dr. Richard Van Enk, director of infection, prevention, and epidemiology at Bronson Healthcare. “It’s probably a fairly substantial portion of the overall virus in the community by now.”

Local health departments say there is no link between the cases within its counties.

In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned B.1.1.7 could become the dominant strain of the virus in the United States by March.

According to Van Enk, three to five strains of COVID-19 have circulated in Michigan since the pandemic started. However, B.1.1.7 spreads more easily, with transmission rates 50 to 70 percent higher, which is why the mutation is concerning to health officials. Van Enk adds that current information indicates it causes infection at a lower dose, although the symptoms and severity of the new variant do not appear to be any different than the original.

“If people thought that the pandemic was going to go away quickly and easily, that’s not true," said Van Enk. "The virus is trying to survive, and it will do what it can to survive.”

Hertel, who is able to authorize emergency orders to curb the spread of COVID-19, says she will look at key metrics, such as case numbers, hospitalization rates, and the number of deaths, to determine whether measures need to be taken "hoping that we can continue to keep those localized and mitigate the transmission rate there so that we will not get to a point where we are going backwards and having to shut things down again."