University of Michigan identifies virus outbreaks at off-campus houses

University struggles with spread of virus, more contagious virus variant

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Four off-campus residences and one University of Michigan dormitory are reportedly experiencing COVID outbreaks as the greater campus community struggles with virus spread.

A new, more contagious coronavirus variant has recently made its way into Michigan -- and so far has spread most significantly within the University of Michigan community.

The world’s first case of the variant strain, known as B117, was identified in the U.K. in December. That same month, the first case in the U.S. was reported in Colorado, then more in California. Michigan reported its first known case of the coronavirus variant in a Washtenaw County woman on Jan. 16, and has since reported a total of 17 known cases as of Jan. 24.

U-M officials said Wednesday that since the beginning of the winter term, 175 students have tested positive for COVID-19, and 14 of those individuals have contracted the B117 virus variant.

Amid the outbreak, the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a stay-in-place recommendation through Feb. 7 for all students living on or near the university’s Ann Arbor campus.

Read: University of Michigan students asked to stay home to curb virus spread

According to the University of Michigan’s coronavirus data dashboard, four off-campus, group-living residences are experiencing COVID outbreaks and are under house-wide quarantine. The university is arranging “pop up testing” for quarantined individuals to get tested for COVID-19 on the fifth day of their 14-day quarantine.

The Munger Graduate Residences -- an on-campus graduate student dormitory -- has also reported at least two positive cases among its residents, officials said on Jan. 24. The university is encouraging all students to get tested for the virus weekly.

Since Jan. 21, the university has reportedly administered 44,084 COVID tests within its population, of which 648 tests have been positive -- which is about 1.5 percent positivity rate. For the week of Jan. 24, the university is preliminarily reporting a total of 193 confirmed coronavirus cases at its Ann Arbor campus.

According to the university’s data, as of Saturday, 48 people within the community are currently isolating after testing positive for COVID, while 36 individuals are in quarantine either due to exposure to the virus or while awaiting their COVID test results.

Though coronavirus cases in Washtenaw County are ultimately decreasing, university officials say virus cases associated with U-M have increased and now represent 21 percent of the county’s total cases.

On Friday, the University of Michigan Athletic Department reported that out of 3,215 COVID tests administered within the community this week, 11 student athletes have tested positive for the virus. The news came just days after the university paused all athletic activities in all sports -- including games and team and individual training sessions -- through Feb. 6 to help curb virus spread amid the outbreak.

Learn more: Michigan Athletics put on pause -- Athletes, coaches, team-staff asked to quarantine

Health officials in Michigan and across the country are growing concerned with coronavirus variants being reported in the U.S., including the B117 variant.

According to Michigan health officials, the B117 coronavirus strain does not appear to cause more severe disease, but it does appear to spread more easily. Some believe that the variant might possibly be more deadly than the dominant COVID-19 strain that has already spread throughout the U.S.

Another worrisome coronavirus variant has also recently been discovered in the U.S. for the first time. The mutated version of the virus, first identified in South Africa, was found in two cases in South Carolina on Jan. 28. Public health officials said it’s almost certain that there are more infections that have not been identified in the U.S. yet. They are also concerned that this version spreads more easily and that vaccines could be less effective against it.

Viruses -- especially RNA viruses like coronaviruses -- constantly mutate by nature. Coronavirus variants are circulating around the globe, but scientists are primarily concerned with the emergence of three that researchers believe may spread more easily: the B117 variant, the variant found in South Africa (known as B1351) and another variant found in Brazil (known as P1).

More: How many variants of the coronavirus are there?

So far, the COVID vaccines currently circulating appear to be effective against the B117 virus strain, though potentially to a lesser degree than they are against the dominant COVID strain in the U.S.

The University of Michigan says it is working closely with the Washtenaw County Health Department and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on additional mitigation strategies to address the B117 variant in the university community. The school will be carefully considering additional mitigation measures.

Related: Health officials push importance of testing after COVID variant outbreak at University of Michigan

Click here to visit U-M’s COVID-19 data dashboard.

Find more: Coronavirus news

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.