YPSILANTI, Mich. – University of Michigan students who live on or near campus are being asked to “stay in place” as the coronavirus -- particularly a new, more contagious strain -- continues to spread throughout the region.
With the university’s support, the Washtenaw County Health Department on Wednesday issued a stay-in-place recommendation for all U-M students living on or near the Ann Arbor campus. Students are asked to stay inside their residences between Jan. 27 and Feb. 7 to help curb the spread of the virus.
The news comes as several cases of a new, highly contagious COVID-19 variant -- known as B117 -- have been reported in Washtenaw County residents, including individuals within the University of Michigan community. The variant, which experts say is possibly more deadly than the dominant COVID strain in the U.S., was first reported in Michigan in mid-January, and was first reported in the U.S. at the end of December in Colorado. The world’s first known case of the strain was reported in the U.K. in December.
“We are very concerned about the potential for this variant to spread quickly. We are working closely with the university to take coordinated steps to control the current outbreak and understand the situation more fully,” said Washtenaw County health officer Jimena Loveluck in a statement. “We also recognize that these are difficult actions and appreciate the university’s continued partnership. This stay-in-place recommendation will help us reduce the impact of the variant and COVID-19 in general as we investigate.”
As of Monday, Jan. 25, there have been a total of 17 reported cases of the coronavirus variant B117 in Michigan -- 13 cases have been reported in Washtenaw County, and four cases have been reported in Wayne County.
Michigan health officials say that while the variant does appear to spread more easily, it doesn’t appear to cause more severe disease. The existing COVID-19 vaccines already being administered in Michigan and across the U.S. appear to still work against the more contagious virus variant.
Under the county health department’s recommendation, U-M students are asked to only leave their homes for essential activities, including in-person classes, work or research that can’t be completed remotely and obtaining food and medical care. Residents are asked to limit activities outside of their homes as much as possible.
Officials said Wednesday that since the beginning of the winter term, 175 U-M students have tested positive for COVID-19, and 14 of those individuals reportedly have contracted the virus variant. It is currently unclear how these 14 individuals factor into Monday’s report of 17 individuals infected with the virus variant in Michigan.
“This recommendation is intended to slow any possible spread and give us a better understanding of the extent of the presence of B.1.1.7 variant on campus and to aid in containing any current spread,” said Dr. Rob Ernst, executive director of the University Health Service at U-M. “We encourage all students to stay in place and only leave their residence for essential activities, including getting tested weekly for COVID-19.”
The county’s recommendation is directed at all University of Michigan students, including undergraduate, graduate and professional students. Officials said that “more stringent actions” may be applied if the outbreak continues to worsen.
University President Mark Schlissel issued a letter to the university community Wednesday saying there is less room for error now that the variant has reached the school than before with the normal COVID-19 cases.
“Pressing the pause button on nonessential activities will help us protect each other from illness and preserve our ability to eventually resume more normal activities as we continue our vaccination efforts,” Schlissel said.
Days before the recommendation, all university athletics were paused to help slow the spread of the virus.
Officials say it is likely that more cases of the B117 strain exist in Michigan that have not yet been discovered.
To help prevent the spread of the virus, individuals are encouraged to continue practicing mitigation measures including good hygiene and frequent hand washing, mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowds and gatherings.
Local coronavirus updates can be found on the Washtenaw County Health Department’s website here.