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Health

Infectious disease experts: Established prevention methods still work against U.K. variant

snowy campus setting
Will Callan
/
Michigan Radio

As of Thursday morning, 20 cases of the U.K. coronavirus variant, or B.1.1.7, had been identified in Michigan — 14 in Washtenaw County, six in Wayne.

In Washtenaw, the outbreak prompted a stay-at-home "recommendation" from the local health department for students at the University of Michigan, where people associated with U of M were the first in the state to test positive for the variant.

Health officials say the recommendation is intended to reduce the risk of uncontrolled spread of B.1.1.7 through the community. But the stricter measures, they emphasize, do not mean current protection methods such as mask-wearing and physical distancing are known to work any less effectively against the variant.

Infectious disease specialists agree.

“We know certain principles are working to control this virus. We've done it before and it's working very well,” said Dr. Peter Gulick, a professor of medicine at Michigan State University who treats infectious diseases. “So we have to keep those same principles in place, and then wait for new information to come out to give us direction on where to go from here.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services suggests COVID-19 testing for any Michigander who’s left the state in the last two weeks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not yet recommend that people protect themselves and others any differently. For people who spend time in crowded areas, some researchers suggest wearing either a cloth mask over a surgical mask or a single three-layer mask.

But most of all, experts say public health responses to B.1.1.7 outbreaks — like the one in Washtenaw County —  should encourage people to reclaim habits they've lost to fatigue. 

“It’s a matter of how well we adhere to those distancing measures, how well we adhere to wearing a mask properly,” said Dr. Joshua Barocas, a professor of medicine at Boston University who treats infectious diseases at Boston Medical Center.

At the same time, the CDC, the infectious disease specialists, and the health officials all acknowledge that efforts to curb infection might change as more information about the variant emerges.

“Will (masking and distancing) be less effective, and will we end up changing guidelines? We really don’t know that,” said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, a spokesperson for the Washtenaw County Health Department. “But we do know that these are effective, especially when they’re layered up and used together.”

Ringler-Cerniglia says the health department plans to hold no-cost pop-up testing this weekend, and that information about the sites should be announced soon. 

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