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First case of COVID variant detected in Michigan: What to know

First case found in Washtenaw County resident

Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots. (CDC)

The first case of a COVID-19 variant believed to be more contagious was detected in Michigan over the weekend.

Officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced Saturday, Jan. 16 that an adult female living in Washtenaw County contracted a new COVID-19 variant, known as B.1.1.7.

Officials say she recently traveled to the U.K, where the variant was first identified and has recently sent part of that country into a strict lockdown to help curb virus spread. Two additional positive COVID cases have been identified among close contacts with the Washtenaw County woman, but it is unclear if those two individuals are also infected with the virus variant.

While this is the first detected instance of the variant, it’s very likely it’s already spreading in the state and around the U.S. for months.

What do we know about COVID variant B.1.1.7.?

The B.1.1.7 variant is estimated to have emerged in September 2020 and has quickly become the dominant circulating SARS-CoV-2 variant in England, the CDC says.

As of January 13, 2021, approximately 76 cases of B.1.1.7 have been detected in 10 U.S. states. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that B.1.1.7 is more efficiently transmitted than are other SARS-CoV-2 variants, the CDC reports.

EXPLAINER: Scientists trying to understand new virus variant

The modeled CDC trajectory of this variant in the U.S. predicts rapid growth in early 2021, becoming the predominant variant in March. Increased SARS-CoV-2 transmission might threaten strained health care resources, require extended and more rigorous implementation of public health strategies, and increase the percentage of population immunity required for pandemic control.

Are more lockdowns coming because of this variant?

It’s impossible to know for sure. But spread of this variant in other countries caused a big spike in hospitalizations and deaths, prompting stricter lockdown measures, especially in the U.K.

The CDC says taking measures to reduce transmission now can lessen the potential impact of B.1.1.7 and allow critical time to increase vaccination coverage.

“Collectively, enhanced genomic surveillance combined with continued compliance with effective public health measures, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential to limiting the spread,” the CDC reports.

As of Jan. 18, in Michigan, hospitalizations, case growth and test positivity are near its lowest point in several weeks, and the state has been reopening some areas of businesses with plans to reopen more in February.

Will vaccines work for variants?

Existing and future vaccines are believed to be able to handle this and other variants of COVID-19. Earlier this month, research suggested Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine can protect against the B.1.1.7 variant, specifically.

The study was preliminary and did not look at the two other major vaccines being used in the West — Moderna’s and AstraZeneca’s. But it was reassuring, given questions of whether the virus could mutate to defeat the shots on which the world has pinned its hopes.

“There’s no reason to think the vaccines won’t work just as well on these strains,” said Dr. Frederic Bushman of the University of Pennsylvania, who tracks how the virus mutates. “A mutation will change one little place, but it’s not going to disrupt binding to all of them.”

Will the virus keep mutating?

Yes. That’s what viruses do! That’s how they’ve survived for billions of years.

According to an article published in the Journal of Virology, about 8 percent of human DNA comes from viruses inserted into our genomes in the distant past, in many cases into the genomes of our pre-human ancestors millions of years ago. Most of these viral genes come from retroviruses, RNA viruses that insert DNA copies of their own genes into our genomes when they infect cells.

Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time.

What can you do to protect yourself?

The best thing you can do is get vaccinated. If you’re eligible for vaccination right now, get in touch with your local health department or hospital system to find options.

If you’re not eligible for vaccination yet, you know the drill here:

  • Wear a mask around others.
  • Stay 6 feet apart from others.
  • Wash hands often.
  • Ventilate indoor spaces.

“The discovery of this variant in Michigan is concerning, but not unexpected,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS. “We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 and end this pandemic as quickly as possible. We continue to urge Michiganders to follow a research-based approach 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.”

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