GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan has now recorded 45 cases of the COVID-19 variant labeled B.1.1.7, according to the state’s chief medical executive.
“There will be more” cases, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said at a Tuesday press conference alongside the governor in Lansing.
She said she was “very concerned” about the increasing number of B.1.1.7 cases, which have been found in 10 counties, including in West Michigan. Khaldun noted that several of the patients have not been traveling, explaining that means “the variant is likely in the general community.”
The variant, originally identified in the United Kingdom, is not believed to be more deadly than the dominant variant but it does spread more quickly.
“If we are not vigilant, we could see a rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths similar to what they saw in the U.K.,” Khaldun said.
The good news, she continued, is that the mitigation measures we’ve been following for months will help fight back B.1.1.7.
Khaldun said the state is looking for another variant that was initially found in South Africa but so far has not identified any cases.
The vaccination effort will also be key in stopping variants from spreading and new ones from popping up. As of Sunday, about 1.3 million doses had been administered in the state.
Michigan is aiming to vaccinate about 5.6 million people, with a goal of 50,000 shots administered per day and infrastructure capacity already prepared for up to 80,000. Last week, the state averaged about 39,656 doses administered per day.
The main issue holding back the vaccination effort is the limited number of doses coming into Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the shipments have increased in recent weeks, but the state still needs more. She pointed to a recent visit to Pfizer’s Portage plant, which she said is working to increase production. Whitmer also said she is no longer pushing to buy doses directly from Pfizer, citing increased communication from the federal government under the Biden administration.
THE EPIDEMIC IN MICHIGAN
The state also reported 60 more deaths related to the virus, 31 of which were discovered when public health workers reviewed death certificates to find any they had not already been informed of.
On Monday, labs in Michigan tested 17,813 samples for the virus and 736 were positive, a rate of 4.13%. The number of positive tests is not the same as the number of new cases because people may be tested more than once. Additionally, testing numbers are from a single calendar date, while the number of new cases lists the increase since the last time the state compiled the data; these two time frames do not match up precisely.
Kent County recorded seven more deaths for a total of 625 and confirmed 53 more cases for a total of 47,311.
A few other West Michigan counties also reported additional deaths:
- Allegan County: Three more deaths for 90 total; 6,361 total confirmed cases since the start of the outbreak.
- Berrien County: One more death for 209 total; 10,319 total cases.
- Ottawa County: Two more deaths for 306 total; 20,441 total cases.
- St. Joseph County: Two more deaths for 76 total; 4,046 total cases.
- Van Buren County: One more death for 84 total; 4,580 total cases.
Wayne County, where Detroit is, confirmed 82 more cases for a total of 91,898 and reported six more deaths for a total of 3,837. Neighboring Oakland County has had 62,712 confirmed cases (86 more than the previous day) and 1,825 deaths (seven more). Macomb County has had 53,659 cases (26 more) and 1,806 deaths (four more).
Michigan’s coronavirus metrics continue to improve. Khaldun said the state’s case rate is down 81% from the mid-November peak and the percentage of all hospital beds in the state now treating COVID-19 patients is now 6%, a decline of 72% since the Dec. 1 peak.
Whitmer’s remarks at the press conference included a focus on getting kids back to in-person learning as soon as possible. She has been saying for weeks that she wants schools to at least offer an in-person learning option no later than March 1 — and sooner if possible.
Many schools already have at least some in-person learning, but driving home the importance of getting more students face-to-face with teachers was the chair of the governor’s Student Recovery Advisory Council, Godfrey -Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston.
“No individual school or district can address COVID-19 alone. It takes adequate resources and a committed, collective effort to endure,” Polston said. “As an educational leader, I know a physically safe learning environment is only one piece. COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the academic and social and emotional well-being of our students. We have seen reports of mental health referrals for school age children increase by 30% in the past year. We know parents are concerned about academic recovery and want to ensure that their children are ready for their next step in their education journey.”
Despite concerns about the variant cases, Khaldun said she believes schools and parents can send kids back to class safely.
Whitmer also again urged the Legislature to allocate money for COVID-19 relief fully and quickly.
Last month, she asked for about $5.6 billion from the Legislature to use for her recovery plan, which includes funds for education and vaccine distribution. Most of that money is from the federal government but has to be appropriated by the Legislature. Whitmer wants it done sooner rather than later.
“The quicker that it happens in full, the better we can support the incredible progress that we’ve made as a state. Meting it out in tranches, if you will, is foolish because it undermines our ability to keep Michigan at the top of the list for the supply chain as we are addressing COVID needs, and I’m not sure that maybe that aspect is really appreciated,” she said Tuesday. “I know that the Legislature is trying to do a good job. They say they want to accomplish the same goals as we have. We just have to get these resources deployed because as the superintendent mentioned, withholding dollars that could support our kids as we are starting to resume in-person learning could really be set back or create scenarios where we’re not successful. That is not an option.”
The governor’s hope of getting all $5.6 billion at once may not be in the works — at least not right now. State House Republicans have proposed a package of about $3.7 billion, while the Senate on Tuesday rolled out a relief plan totaling about $2 billion.
“The Senate just released their thoughts, so hopefully that means we’re going to progress toward a moment where we’ve got some conversation on this subject, but that hasn’t really happened in any meaningful way at this juncture,” Whitmer said.
The House Republicans’ proposal would tie education funding to Whitmer’s administration ceding power over when in-person learning and sports can happen and giving that power to local health departments. Whitmer quickly panned that suggestion.
She said Tuesday that those powers should rest with the executive branch. She said “the buck will stop with the governor” and that the voters will judge her actions when she is up for reelection next year.
—News 8 political reporter Rick Albin contributed to this report.