11 University of Michigan student athletes test positive for COVID this week, officials say

University athletics on pause amid outbreak of new, more contagious COVID strain

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Amid a two-week pause on all athletic programs at the University of Michigan, more student athletes have tested positive for COVID-9 this week, officials said.

The University of Michigan Athletic Department says out of 3,215 COVID tests administered within the community this week, 11 student athletes have tested positive.

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The news comes days after the university put all athletic programs on pause due to a rise in virus spread throughout the region -- specifically of a new, more contagious coronavirus variant. The mutation, known as B117, has been identified in at least 14 individuals within the U-M community. School officials said some of those who tested positive for the B117 variant are people involved in the Athletic Department.

As of Jan. 24, 17 confirmed cases of the virus variant have been reported in Michigan -- 13 in Washtenaw County and four in Wayne County. It is currently unclear if the 11 U-M students have tested positive for the B117 strain or a different strain.

Health officials are growing concerned in Michigan, and across the country, as virus variants make their way into and around the U.S. 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 spread throughout the U.S.

More: UK chief scientist says new virus variant may be more deadly

The world’s first known case of the B117 virus strain was reported in the U.K. in December. Soon after in the same month, the strain was discovered in the U.S. first in Colorado, and then California. The strain has now reached at least 20 states.

The Washtenaw County resident who contracted Michigan’s first known B117 COVID case had reportedly recently traveled to the U.K.

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

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.

So far, the COVID vaccines currently circulating appear to be effective against the B117 virus strain.

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?

After an outbreak of the B117 variant was identified in the U-M community, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) elected to cease all university athletic activities in all sports -- including games, team and individual training sessions -- through Feb. 6. All student athletes, coaches and team staff have been asked to immediately isolate or quarantine until further notice.

“Canceling competitions is never something we want to do, but with so many unknowns about this variant of COVID-19, we must do everything we can to minimize the spread among student-athletes, coaches, staff, and to the student-athletes at other schools,” said Warde Manuel, the Donald R. Shepherd Director of Athletics.

The school is working closely with the Washtenaw County Health Department and MDHHS on additional mitigation strategies to address the COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant in the university community. The university will be carefully considering additional mitigation measures.

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

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is taking appropriate measures to protect the health and safety of Michiganders from the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 that is more easily spread from person to person. Because this variant can more easily spread, it could result in more cases, hospitalizations and deaths as we have seen in other countries that have had outbreaks associated with this variant. MDHHS has made recommendations to prevent and slow the spread of this virus, to allow time for plots vulnerable people to be vaccinated before the variant spreads.

In response to five confirmed cases and additional suspected cases of the variant associated with sports teams at the University, MDHHS has made a number of recommendations including suspending all sports practices and games for two weeks, expanded testing and public messaging about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. MDHHS sent University of Michigan officials a memo explaining our recommendations, but has not issued any orders for the university to take any actions.

Due to possible exposure to the virus in the community, MDHHS has also recommended increased testing in Washtenaw County to the Washtenaw County Health Department. We continue to urge all Michiganders to continue doing the right thing to protect themselves against the virus, including wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding crowds, washing their hands often and making plans to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine when it is their turn.

Statement from the MDHHS

U-M student athletes have since started a petition to overturn the two-week pause.

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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.