Michigan Braces for Spread of New Covid Strains as Mass Vaccination Site Opens

With the spread of the U.K. and South African variants, the Wolverine State teeters on the verge of losing the progress it made from months of shutdowns and restrictions.

A pedestrian walks by a store closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic in Grosse Pointe, Mich., last year. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

DETROIT (CN) — Michigan recently celebrated the grim one-year anniversary of the first cases of Covid-19 detected in the Wolverine State. Since then, more than 610,000 Michiganders have caught the virus and over 15,000 have perished, and with the recent emergence of highly contagious strains the worst might not be over.

An Oakland County resident and Wayne County resident, both who reported traveling internationally, were the first citizens in the state to contract the respiratory disease on March 10, 2020.

Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer immediately declared a state of emergency.

“We are taking every step we can to mitigate the spread of the virus and keep Michiganders safe,” she said in a statement at the time. “I have declared a state of emergency to harness all of our resources across state government to slow the spread of the virus and protect families.”

Cases continued to rise with a peak of around 2,000 new cases a day in early April but flatlined over the summer at about 1,000 cases a day, until October when a massive increase began. The new daily reported cases exploded to around 7,000 per day by November while deaths averaged about 120 a day.

A slow but steady decrease followed through the winter months, but now a spring surge associated with highly contagious new strains of the disease threaten to plunge the state back into the abyss. Cases have increased by 50% over the last week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Almost a year to the day since the first cases in Michigan, the Covid-19 variant B1351, originally detected in South Africa, was recently identified in a Jackson County child on March 9.

Matthew Budd, personal and preventative health service director of the Jackson County Health Department, posted a video on Facebook warning about the new variants and urging people to be vigilant.

“All viruses mutate after time. It’s like playing a game of telephone, where the message ends up being different each time it passes to the next person,” he said.

He added, “Not every test sample collected is tested to see what strain it is. This means there might be additional variant cases in Jackson County and there could be a spread of these variants in our community.”

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, associate dean for public health integration at Michigan State University, believes another wave is on the way.

“Cases will increase if something doesn’t shift,” she said in a telephone interview. “And I don’t know what that shift would be. With everything starting to open it’s going to be hard to keep pace with the spread.”

She added, “It would not surprise me if where we are the next few weeks becomes the baseline for what it looks like this summer.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said recently that the spread of a new mutation was inevitable. 

“We are concerned about the discovery of another variant in Michigan, although it was not unexpected,” she said in a statement.

“We continue to urge Michiganders to follow a research-based approach by wearing their masks properly, socially distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often, and making a plan to get the safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine once it is their turn,” she added. “We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of Covid-19 and end this pandemic as quickly as possible.”

Furr-Holden hopes people do not take anything for granted and stay vigilant, even if they are vaccinated.

“Until we get to that sweet spot of having community case spread of 1-2% and a significant portion of the population vaccinated, that is our best strategy right now to keep the spread down,” she said.

A health worker draws blood for Covid-19 antibody testing in Dearborn, Mich., last year. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

The U.K. variant B117 was detected on March 8 in Livingston County. Juan Marquez, medical director at the Livingston County Health Department, said in a statement that people should take even more care now to avoid the virus.

“The possibility of additional spread of the variant is a concern,” it said. “At this point, and with the guidance of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, we are encouraging extra precautions.”

Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer for Henry Ford Health System, said at a news conference Wednesday that the variants are a problem.

“We do believe that these variants might be contributing to the increase in the number that we are seeing at the present time,” he said. 

A mass vaccination site is being set up at Ford Field in downtown Detroit, home to the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The 65,000-seat stadium is expected to be ready on March 24 and will be able to administer 6,000 doses a day, according to a statement released by Henry Ford Hospital, the health system chosen to direct the operation.

Governor Whitmer was ecstatic over the development and grateful to the federal government for its assistance.

“I want to thank President Biden and FEMA for the opportunity to build one of the nation’s first community vaccination sites to service the entire Southeast Michigan region,” she said in a released statement.

She added, “Over 1 million Michiganders of all races have already been safely vaccinated, and this site will help us to reach our goal of equitably vaccinating 70% of Michiganders who are 16 years or older more quickly.”

Kevin M. Sligh, acting regional administrator for FEMA Region 5, said in a statement it is important to reach out to the most vulnerable.

“We are establishing the Ford Field site to expand the rate of vaccinations in an efficient, effective and equitable manner, with an explicit focus on making sure that local communities with a high risk of Covid-19 exposure and infection are not left behind,” he said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat, is eager to get started.

“The most important thing we can do now as a community is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible so our lives and our economy can return to normal,” he said in a statement. “Having this new mass vaccination site operated by FEMA will be a significant step forward for our city and our region toward that goal. We will be working closely with FEMA and state officials to make sure vaccines are distributed equitably.” 

U.S. Representative Brenda L. Lawrence, a Democrat and member of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, hopes the sheer size of the Ford Field project will encourage vaccine skeptics to reconsider their reluctance to get the shots.

“Scaling up our vaccine distribution and outreach is exactly how we will beat this virus and keep our communities safe,” she said in a statement. “We need to continue efforts like these to get Michiganders vaccinated, including people of color and other vulnerable communities. This includes tackling myths and building trust in the safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine.”

Furr-Holden was measured in her thoughts about the mass vaccination site and was not convinced that it would inspire anyone who was reluctant to get the shots.

“Hopefully, the mass vaccination sites don’t become mass spreader sites,” she said.

She believes it should be more localized.

“If we have the supply, it needs to be in the communities where people can readily get to it,” she said.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recorded 3,167 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, the highest single-day total since Jan. 8, when there were 3,625.

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