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As COVID-19 cases plateau, unclear how new variant will inform public health response


Michigan’s COVID-19 cases continue to plateau, hospitalizations continue to decline, and the seven-day average percentage of tests coming back positive fell to 7.6% over the week ending January 16.

Those are three takeaways from an epidemiology update hosted Wednesday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Sarah Lyon-Callo, who leads the health department’s Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, said during the Wednesday Zoom call that while Michigan’s case rate fell consistently for most of December, since Christmas it’s plateaued.

As of January 16, the weekly average cases per million Michigan residents stood at 287.5.

“We’re eagerly watching this line every day to see if we’ll start to have more of a decline in the future,” Lyon-Callo said, referring to the trend chart.

Lyon-Callo and other health officials on the call also spoke about the B.1.1.7 variant, Michigan’s first case of which was identified on January 16 by the state lab in Lansing. 

Though data don’t suggest the variant causes more severe illness, it is more contagious, raising fears it could infect more people and overwhelm already battered hospitals.  

But, during the Wednesday update, MDHHS director Robert Gordon said there are currently no plans to adjust Michigan’s public health response in light of the new variant.

“We have always said that we look at multiple factors, and I think we will continue to do that,” he said. “But I will say, obviously we are very concerned about the variant, and so we will be observing trends as we move forward.”

Gordon said, at the moment, those trends mean the state will still allow indoor dining to reopen on February 1.

When it announced the variant's detection on Saturday, MDHHS said the patient was an adult woman living in Washtenaw County. She had recently traveled to the U.K., where the variant was first identified.

Case investigators have since connected seven additional COVID cases to that first case, according to Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia.

“All cases are in isolation, and additional (non-positive) contacts are in quarantine,” she wrote in an email. “We do not know yet if the additional cases are also the variant. This sequencing is being done at the state laboratory, and we probably won’t have results until next week."

During Wednesday’s presentation, Lyon-Callo also noted that cases rose over the last week for only one age group: 29-years-old and younger. But the highest case rate was still among the 30-49-year-olds.

As of Wednesday, the state health department has reported 13,905 lives lost to COVID-19 in Michigan.

Will Callan, a reporter for Michigan Radio, hails from the Bay Area, where he lived in Oakland and San Francisco and reported for local newspapers and magazines. He enjoys a long swim in chilly water (preferably followed by a sauna) and getting to know new cities. That's one reason he's excited to be in Ann Arbor, which he can already tell has just the right combo of urban grit and natural beauty to make him feel at home.
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