New Variant Meets Its First University

University of Michigan’s stay-at-home order could be a look into the future for other colleges and universities, as new SARS-CoV-2 variants spread across the country.

February 3, 2021
 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19.

University of Michigan students are now under a stay-at-home order from the college administration after a recommendation from its county health department due to a cluster of cases of one of the new COVID-19 variants, called B.1.1.7.

The new variant, first observed in Britain, has now been reported in 32 states and 467 people. Experts have suggested that B.1.1.7 transmits more efficiently and rapidly than previously observed types of the novel coronavirus. British experts have also suggested that the variant may be more deadly.

As of Jan. 27, 14 people at Michigan have been infected with the B.1.1.7 variant.

In the United States, B.1.1.7 has not caused a major revision of health protocols. American colleges on the whole are still planning to bring back more students than they did last semester and to hold more in-person classes.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that B.1.1.7 could be the dominant strain causing U.S. cases by March. The University of Michigan and its approach to the cluster may be a bellwether of things to come for American institutions.

The goal behind Michigan’s stay-at-home order is not so much to fully contain the variant as it is to limit spread and buy the university and county time, said Rick Fitzgerald, spokesperson for Michigan.

“It was designed to give us time to do some of the additional testing to give us a clearer picture of that variant in our community,” he said. The university is currently doing weekly testing, then taking every positive test and sequencing it to learn its strain.

The process takes additional time for both the university and the Washtenaw County Health Department. While one of the cases at Michigan was connected to travel to Britain, said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, spokesperson for the health department, not all variant cases have been connected to that individual.

“How closely all those cases are connected or not connected is what we're trying to figure out,” she said.

The department’s first level of investigation is close contacts -- people who have spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of someone who is infected -- but the department is now looking at “casual contacts,” who may have had more incidental contact with an infected person, trying to find undetected spread. While the university and county work to find what’s already in the community, they need to limit further spread.

Michigan’s stay-at-home order isn’t a full quarantine. Students are allowed out for food, exercise, work and -- notably -- in-person classes.

The university didn’t observe any transmission from in-person classes in the fall, because of proper protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing, Fitzgerald said, so keeping classes face-to-face should be safe.

The university has already seriously limited the number of in-person classes it is holding, he said. About 80 to 90 percent of courses are online this semester, and the campus is housing only about 2,600 students on campus (down from its usual 10,000). Classes currently being offered in person are ones university administrators and faculty felt were essential, Fitzgerald said, such as those related to licensing requirements.

For now, the university and county are focused on curtailing social gatherings between students who don't live together, which is what they see as the main source of spread. The stay-at-home order is set to last until Feb. 7, at which point it may be extended.

"More stringent actions may be necessary if this outbreak continues to grow and additional variant clusters are identified," the health department said in a release.

After the first cases were discovered in Michigan’s athletics department, the university paused all athletic activity Jan. 23 and told athletes to enter quarantine.

Currently the Washtenaw County health department has seen no other B.1.1.7 variant cases at other colleges in the area, Ringler-Cerniglia said. Michigan State University is also currently under a stay-at-home order, but officials there have said there have been no cases of the B.1.1.7 observed.

According to the CDC, states with most cases of the B.1.1.7 variant include California, Florida and New York. Broward and Miami-Dade Counties in Florida, home to Fort Lauderdale and Miami respectively, have been the sites of most cases in that state. Universities in those areas have not publicized any variant cases.

“We're monitoring the situation, but have not made any changes in our preventive measures,” said a spokesperson for Florida International University via email.

Whether more cases will crop up at American colleges and universities remains to be seen. Typical COVID-19 tests do not assess what strain a person might be infected with, and health departments can only find variants when they are looking for them. While the CDC has ramped up its National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance program to process 750 samples per week, the United States currently ranks 43rd worldwide in sequencing to check for genetic changes in the virus.

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