Michigan identifies first case of Brazilian COVID-19 variant as virus surges statewide

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Michigan has identified its first case of the P.1 coronavirus variant first discovered in Brazil, health officials announced Thursday.

The confirmation of yet another variant in the state underscores the urgency to vaccinate as many Michiganders as quickly as possible, as the state is in the middle of the country’s biggest surge of new infections.

The variant was found in a woman in Bay County. The case was diagnosed in early March and she has recovered, state officials said.

This is the second new variant of COVID-19 to be identified in Bay County since last week, said Joel Strasz, the county’s public health officer.

“The rise of these new variants definitely impact the progress we have made this year with vaccinations,” Strasz said in a statement.

Public health officials like Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky have said the country is in a race between vaccines and variants, and it is not surprising that there will be more mutations found in areas of widespread infection.

The Wolverine State is averaging nearly 57 new cases for every 100,000 people. The positivity rate hit 12 percent on Thursday, and continues to climb. Hospitalizations, especially among younger unvaccinated people in their 50s, are also on the rise.

According to the tracking site COVID Act Now, each person in Michigan with COVID-19 is infecting 1.29 other people on average, an indication that the total number of active cases in the state is growing at an unsustainable rate.

State officials have identified five variants of the coronavirus, with the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the United Kingdom the most prominent. The variant is much more contagious than the original “wild-type” virus.

“We are concerned about the discovery of another variant in Michigan,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. 

“It is now even more important that Michiganders continue to do what works to slow the spread of the virus by wearing their masks properly, socially distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often and making a plan to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine once it is their turn,” she said. “We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 and end this pandemic as quickly as possible.”

While part of the outbreak can be attributed to the variant spread, experts have also pointed to a relaxing of restrictions. Michigan imposed strict rules early in the pandemic, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has gradually lifted them.

The state still has a mask mandate, but travel is increasing, and Whitmer has allowed indoor dining up to 50 percent capacity.

According to experts, many of the infections in Michigan have been driven by outbreaks linked to large social gatherings, so the increase in more contagious variants gives people very little room for error.

The new outbreaks are also tied to younger people, who are experiencing pandemic fatigue.

Preeti Malani, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases expert at the University of Michigan, said she doesn’t think reimposing restrictions will work, because the public has no desire to follow them.

“This isn’t going to be a dial back situation. I don’t know that there’s an appetite to increase restrictions, nor do I think that would solve the problem. People are past the point where restrictions will affect behavior. It’s been a long year,” Malani said.

Instead, Malani said leaders need to emphasize the personal responsibility of wearing masks and physical distancing, especially to younger people.

Michigan is opening vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older on Monday, which should also help contain the spread of the virus, pending vaccine supply.

The state has already vaccinated 67 percent of the population ages 65 to 74, and 67 percent of the population over the age of 75, according to the CDC.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus coronavirus restrictions COVID variants COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccine Gretchen Whitmer Rochelle Walensky

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