LANSING — State health authorities are now on high alert after a new variant of the COVID-19 virus has been detected in three Washtenaw County women.
The two adult women were in close contact with the first woman to be found positive for the variant, as announced on Jan. 16. The first woman had recently traveled to the U.K. All three COVID-19 patients are associated with the University of Michigan. The MDHHS and the Washtenaw County Health Department announced the other two cases late Thursday.
The variant, B.1.1.7, is said to be about 50 percent more transmissible and spreads 50 percent faster than the previous common strain found in the U.S. State health experts are now having to rethink their vaccination plans for the state.
Earlier this week, Sarah Lyon-Callo, the director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, joined MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and MDHHS Director Robert Gordon to give an online update on the new variant and its relation to the present Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
Because of the high transmission rate of the new variant, Michigan’s hospitals could quickly become overwhelmed with patients and deaths, which could also trigger further economic shutdowns. This also means that the state has to readjust its goal for how many Michiganders need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
State health experts now say nearly 90 percent or more of Michiganders over 16, about 7.2 million people, would need to be immunized to gain control over the more infectious variant. The state’s previous goal was to immunize about 70 percent of the state’s population aged 16 and older by the end of the year.
“If a virus is more easily transmitted between humans, we have to have a … higher percentage of humans vaccinated in a population to disrupt transmission,” Lyon-Callo said.
But there is good news on the vaccine front. Both state and federal health officials have acknowledged that the variant is not expected to change the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.
But right now, from the reports we have … it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against (the new variants) — Dr. Anthony Fauci
The top U.S. infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is back to regularly scheduled coronavirus briefings with the new Biden administration, said on Thursday that he expects current vaccines will be effective against the recently discovered virus mutations, and that vaccines can be modified to account for new variants of the virus. There is a variant from South Africa that is of some concern, but has not been detected in the U.S.
“Bottom line: We’re paying very close attention to it for our alternative plans if we have to ever modify the vaccine,” Fauci said. “But right now, from the reports we have … it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them.”
He also said that that Biden is using the Defense Production Act to help vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, to ramp up their production.
In Michigan, five other close contacts of the Washtenaw County woman have been identified with COVID-19 and are in quarantine, though it is not known if they are infected with the same variant. State officials expect the variant to show up in other parts of the state soon.
There has been no indication that the variant worsens the clinical outcomes or disease severity compared to the previous virus strain. Masking, social distancing and hand washing are considered highly instrumental in avoiding the spread of this variant.
Since Wednesday, 598,127 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered to health care workers, people over 65 years of age and certain essential workers like teachers and emergency workers in Michigan. Out of that, 499,460 have been first doses, 98,667 have been second doses.
Indoor dining reopens Feb. 1
News of the highly contagious variant comes as Michigan prepares to open its restaurants to indoor dining services, with mask and social distancing restrictions in place, by Feb. 1.
Gordon said the state government was “very concerned about the variant” and so will be observing trends going forward, but also said the date for reopening dine-in services remains the same.
MDHHS confirmed the reopening date with a new epidemic order on Friday. The order will allow for indoor dining at restaurants with certain requirements, concessions at casinos, movie theaters and stadiums, personal services requiring mask removal, and non-residential gatherings of up to 10 people from two households. The new order will last three weeks, until Sunday, Feb. 21.
Restaurants and bars will be allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity with up to 100 people. Tables must be six feet apart with no more than six people per table. Outdoor tents with four sides are permitted under these same rules. Bars and restaurants must close by 10 p.m. Additionally, contact information must be collected from diners for contact tracing purposes.
The state says its last r0und of restrictions on indoor activities such as indoor dining, in-person classes and family gathering over the holidays has had a positive effect on the spread of the disease in the state. Cases have been on a decline since last November and have now reached a plateau.
Michigan’s positivity rate is down to 6.8 percent declining, and hospitalizations have decreased overall.
“The pause has worked. The efforts we have made together to protect our families, frontline workers and hospitals have dramatically reduced cases and we have saved lives,” said Governor Whitmer. “Now, we are confident that starting February 1, restaurants can resume indoor dining with safety measures in place.”