At least 14 cases of the new U.K. variant of COVID-19, or the B.1.1.7 variant, have been identified in Washtenaw County and tied to the University of Michigan campus. While there is conflicting evidence on the mortality rate of this new strain, we know definitively that the B.1.1.7 variant is more contagious. This means that even if the new variant has the same mortality rate as the original COVID-19 virus, more people will die, simply because it spreads faster. Because of this, the B.1.1.7 variant being present at the University poses a major threat to the Ann Arbor community. It is vital that we see the reality and gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic and remain hypervigilant to protect ourselves and those around us.

The B.1.1.7 variant of the COVID-19 virus was first identified in the U.K. in December 2020 and quickly became the primary variant of the virus present in England. Since then, multiple cases have been discovered in Washtenaw County. The Washtenaw County Health Department encouraged those who visited either the Meijer on Ann Arbor-Saline Road between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. or Briarwood Mall between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Jan. 17 to get tested for COVID-19 due to possible exposure. 

Most recently, the University paused athletics as a result of multiple student-athletes testing positive for the B.1.1.7 variant. Already, we have seen the impacts of the higher level of contagion found in this version of the virus, and this is only the beginning. Even more concerning, the Food and Drug Administration indicates that the B.1.1.7 variant can trigger false negatives in test results more frequently than the original virus, so, while getting tested frequently is important, test results cannot be used to excuse unsafe behavior. 

This variant demands more from us in terms of safety precautions than the original version of the COVID-19 virus.

Greater precautions are necessary now, with the B.1.1.7 variant present on campus, but it is no secret that greater precautions have also been necessary at the University since the beginning of the fall term. The University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was notoriously lacking last semester, prompting pushback from the Graduate Employees’ Organization, many students and members of the greater Ann Arbor community. 

In announcing the fall 2020 plan, Michigan’s administration promised symptom screening and testing. While symptom screening was available in the form of ResponsiBlue, an app that asked users if they had any symptoms, students were rarely required to present the screen indicating they had completed the survey when they entered campus buildings, rendering the program mostly ineffective. Though available at the University, testing was offered mainly to symptomatic individuals and those who had been contact-traced, leaving the asymptomatic population high and dry. 

They only allowed all asymptomatic individuals to get tested before returning home for Thanksgiving. The University introduced the voluntary Community Sampling and Tracking Program at the beginning of September 2020 to allow for more asymptomatic testing, but only a limited number of participants were chosen to be tested each week, and not all who registered were guaranteed to be tested at any point in the semester.

The underwhelming response to the COVID-19 pandemic was tied to multiple outbreaks in residence halls, and the University accordingly canceled most undergraduate students’ housing contracts for the winter semester. It seems as though the negative feedback about the University’s proceedings last term was finally received, as the precautions in place this semester are much more appropriate given the state of the pandemic. 

The University now requires students living in residence halls, working at the University or using campus facilities to be tested weekly, and the revamped Community Testing and Sampling Program also provides students with the opportunity to be tested more frequently if they choose to do so. Residence halls are now operating at reduced capacity, with all students living in single rooms. However, the University can only do so much.

Many students living off-campus disregarded the pandemic last semester, continuing to attend large gatherings and interact with people outside their homes, many times without masks. As of now, it seems that this behavior has not changed. With Fraternity & Sorority Life organizations recruiting and initiating new members, students have been seen in large groups, unmasked, at various off-campus houses. Though the University has responded to the increased threat of the new variant with more rigorous precautions, the student body seemingly has not, giving rise to greater concern.

It was always important for us to take COVID-19 seriously, but now more than ever, we need to buckle down and do the right thing. With the new variant being present in our community and being significantly more transmissible as the original COVID-19 virus strain, we must finally wake up to the reality of this pandemic and act accordingly. 

If students do not begin to refrain from large gatherings with people outside their social circles and continue to engage with others without masks, we will be faced with more cases, hospitalizations and deaths than we experienced last semester. Everyone should get tested weekly, avoid large groups and remain aware of any symptoms they experience. We should always be wearing a cloth or medical mask at the minimum, but this new variant’s higher rate of transmission makes it more necessary to use a stronger mask, such as an N95. It is high time for us to step up, take some accountability for our community and protect each other.

Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at imerm@umich.edu.

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