At least 67 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 (also known as the “U.K.” variant) have been confirmed in Michigan, as health experts wait to see whether the more contagious variant will become the dominant strain in the state and potentially reverse weeks of declining case numbers.
“It's very early in the game, and it can take a while for these variants to kind of work their way from just arriving to taking over a community,” said Dr. Adam Lauring, a University of Michigan professor and virologist whose lab sequences COVID samples to detect which variant is present.
“We’re in a lag phase now, where we don’t know which way it’s going to go," he said. "Have we done a good job containing it? Or is it just that it takes a while before it expands enough, that we start seeing it affect our case counts? That’s where we don’t know.”
Thirty-nine of the variant cases confirmed so far are in Washtenaw County, where the initial case of the B.1.1.7 variant was identified on January 16 in the U of M community, according to the county health department. As of Monday morning, Wayne County has identified 10, plus another 3 in Detroit proper. Kalamazoo and Calhoun County have each identified four cases of the variant, with several other counties identifying just one case so far, according to the state health department.
Given the state’s limited capacity to screen for the variant, however, only a small fraction of COVID tests are even sequenced. That means the official numbers are likely a significant undercount.
Cases keep dropping statewide
The variant’s emergence comes as the state's overall cases have been trending downward for weeks now, with about 1,455 new confirmed and probable COVID cases on average each day. That's down from more than 9,800 per day back in November. Hospitalizations and deaths are down as well, and just 3.9% of COVID tests are coming back as positive, according to the state’s dashboard.
So why are things getting better now? Is it the recent restrictions? Have behaviors changed, or did much of Michigan just get hit so hard by the virus in recent months, that many people who wouldn’t or couldn’t socially distance, have already contracted it? Health officials have different theories.
“Michiganders are doing their part by wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and physically distancing,” said Bob Wheaton, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in an email Friday.
Wheaton didn’t answer a question about whether herd immunity could be playing a role in the declining case numbers. Rather, he urged continued vigilance.
“We are deeply concerned about the rapid increases we are seeing in the B.1.1.7 variant. B.1.1.7 is more easily spread from person to person. As it spreads, we could see a very rapid rise in cases, with more hospitalizations and, unfortunately, more deaths.”
The recent public health restrictions put in place on areas like indoor dining may have helped to reduce cases, says Dr. Matthew Sims, Director of Infectious Disease Research at Beaumont Health. And while part of the state’s population has already been infected at this point, he’s unsure whether we “got that far along where it’s everybody."
“But I think that a significant number of people who are doing the risk taking, picked up the disease, potentially asymptomatically.”
David Olejarz, spokesperson for Henry Ford Health System, says even as the health system sees declining hospitalizations from the November peak, “we’re not making any judgments about herd immunity.”
But the science says 70-90% of people would need to become immune for herd immunity, Olejarz said via email. “Again, that’s something for public health [officials] to better address. By our math, less than 5% of people in the tri-county [metro Detroit] area have tested positive for COVID (195,000 confirmed cases among roughly 4 [million] people in the 3 counties,)” he said.
Will the new variants mean yet another surge?
Judging by the experience of other countries, it doesn’t look good, Sims says. The B.1.1.7 variant quickly became the dominant strain in the United Kingdom. Denmark is seeing variant cases skyrocket, even as regular cases fall. And other concerning variants have been detected in South Africa and Brazil.
In January, the Lancet published an article looking at Manaus, Brazil, which is experiencing yet another surge in hospitalizations and deaths, even though the virus had already run rampant through the city months earlier. That set off alarm bells across the globe, because scientists believed the population had developed herd immunity. They’re now investigating whether the new variants could be responsible for the latest grim wave.
“It’s scary, right?” Sims said. “The key, again, is we can’t stop masking. We can’t stop distancing. We can’t stop avoiding crowds. We have to keep doing all those things, hand hygiene, cough etiquette, testining. As much as we want to stop, we can’t stop. And we need to get the vaccines right."
Updated February 15, at 11:13 am.