One week into the winter semester, the Washtenaw County Health Department is recommending all local University of Michigan students — including undergraduate, graduate and professional students — stay in place for two weeks to prevent further spread of COVID-19 cases, including those of the B.1.1.7 variant. According to the Wednesday press release, since the semester began on Jan. 19, 175 cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed among University students.
“Students are permitted to leave their residence only to participate in limited activities, including in-person classes, work or research that cannot be completed remotely, obtaining food and medical care and other approved activities,” the Washtenaw County Health Department press release states.
Other approved activities include accessing essential technology at designated study areas that provide for single-person study space; obtaining COVID-19 testing or vaccination; participating in clinical rotations, student teaching or other off-campus experiential learning assignments held in-person; participating in physical activity outdoors in groups of no more than two; engaging in religious practice activities and volunteering in approved vaccinations and testing efforts.
The recommendation is effective immediately until 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 7.
In a Wednesday email to the U-M community, University President Mark Schlissel encouraged adherence to the guidelines, saying that preventing the spread of COVID-19 — as well as the variant — “is of the highest priority.”
“U-M public health and medical professionals agree that now is the time to implement these additional temporary measures before spread of this more infectious version of COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm our ability to address the virus,” Schlissel wrote. “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's email also said campus is seeing increased cases among students, with larger numbers of close contacts from social activities.
"There is much less margin for error with the more contagious B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant, so strict adherence to preventive measures takes on even greater importance," Schlissel wrote.
Midway through the fall 2020 semester, the county health department issued a two-week-long stay-in-place order for only undergraduate students at the University, asking undergraduates to not leave their residences except to get food, go to class or work. No visitors were allowed in on- or off-campus housing.
Jimena Loveluck, health officer for Washtenaw County, said the stay-in-place recommendation is intended to help slow the spread of both the variant and the original strain of COVID-19.
“We are very concerned about the potential for this variant to spread quickly,” Loveluck said in the press release. “We are working closely with the university to take coordinated steps to control the current outbreak and understand the situation more fully.”
According to the press release, 14 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been identified among U-M students. The first case of the B.1.1.7 variant in Michigan was reported by MDHHS Jan. 16, and a source close to the athletic department told The Michigan Daily Saturday that this case was found in a U-M athlete who had recently traveled from the United Kingdom, where the new strain was identified.
The recommendation comes four days after the University announced a 14-day pause of all athletic programs due to spread of the variant as recommended by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
In an email to The Daily, a MDHHS spokesperson said there are five confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and additional suspected cases connected to the athletics department, as of Sunday at noon. It is unclear how many of the 14 official cases confirmed Wednesday by the county health department are connected to the outbreak in the athletic department.
The release notes county and University officials collaborated closely on the order with the “full support” of the University. Rob Ernest, associate vice president for Student Life and director of the University Health Service, said the recommendation is intended to give the University a better understanding of the extent of the B.1.1.7 variant on campus and contain additional spread.
The variant takes longer to identify through the COVID-19 testing process, the release said. University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told The Daily last week that the University is sequencing all positive COVID-19 samples taken from campus to test for the variant.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, public information officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department, told The Daily Tuesday that WCHD is not sure whether the clusters of the variant in the athletic department are the only variant cases in the area.
“I think with the actions that have already been recommended, we’re hoping we can slow and really control this variant cluster,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “And at the same time, we’re trying to figure out if that is possible or if the variant is already more widespread.”
According to the COVID-19 dashboard, the University had a positivity rate of 1.3% during the week of Jan. 24. In the last 14 days, 337 individuals tested by the University have tested positive.
Joneigh Khaldun, the state of Michigan’s chief medical executive and chief deputy director for MDHHS, said at a Monday press conference diagnosed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant continue to grow across the state.
“There are likely more cases that we have not yet identified, and there’s possibly a spread of the variant that is happening right now,” Khaldun said.
The WCHD announced a recommendation Saturday for any individual who visited Meijer on Ann Arbor Saline Road. from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. on Jan. 17 and Briarwood Mall, 100 Briarwood Circle, from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. on Jan. 17 to immediately get a COVID-19 test, due to possible exposure to the B.1.1.7 variant.
The new variant is believed to be more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus that has been circulating in the United States since early 2020. The higher rate of transmission could increase the number of hospitalizations and deaths resulting from the virus if it spreads widely in Michigan.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday that the variant is likely more deadly, citing a new report from the U.K. government’s science advisory group.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that it could become the dominant strain in the United States by March, leading to a potential surge in COVID-19 cases in the spring.
University President Mark Schlissel told The Daily last week COVID-19 mitigation efforts would be more challenging with the new strain.
“The methods to prevent transmissions are the same — social distancing, masks, avoiding large groups, spending time outdoors when the weather allows, wasting hands more frequently, those kinds of things — and I think if we can remain vigilant about those things a very high percentage of the time, I think the campus will do okay despite the presence of this more transmissible strain,” Schlissel said. “If we let our guard down, more people will get infected if the strain is around.”
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