Beer: MTU surveillance testing accounts for most new COVID cases

HOUGHTON — Surveillance testing at Michigan Technological University accounts for the majority of new cases reported in Houghton County this week, while there does not appear to be evidence of community spread, said Kate Beer, health officer for the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department.

Between Tuesday and Thursday, the number of positive tests in Houghton County rose from 66 to 89. Nineteen of those were related to Michigan Tech, with the other four coming from others in the community, Beer said.

“The majority of them are just asymptomatics that are coming through Michigan Tech’s routine surveillance program,” she said. “We’re catching them early and working with Tech to do contact tracing and minimize any student spread through the community.”

Tech tested about 1,100 people as part of baseline testing during move-in weekend and has a goal of 600 people per week.

“Our goal from the beginning has been and remains to keep our students and staff safe during this pandemic,” the university said in a statement. “A key component of that is our aggressive testing program. The success of the plan relies on our surveillance testing to identify these asymptomatic cases which would otherwise go undetected.”

Few of the cases were related to an off-campus event hosted by the Theta Tau-Beta Chapter, Beer said. The event had been announced as a potential exposure site.

The health department has also been working with K-12 schools as they reopen for public instruction, holding regular meetings with the Copper Country and Gogebic intermediate school districts to answer questions and provide resources.

School reopening toolkits and parent guides are available at wuphd.org.

Beer said the department’s goal is to give guidance to prevent outbreaks and work with districts through any positive cases and any contact tracing that needs to be done. If conditions worsen, the health department will work closely with districts to see when they might need to return to virtual classes, Beer said.

The MI Safe Start map will be a starting point, though the Copper Country’s small population density makes it difficult to translate the numbers into what’s realistic for the area, Beer said.

If an outbreak happens, the health department will evaluate it to see what effect it would have on the school district.

“If it’s in a nursing home, it may not warrant the closure of a school,” Beer said.

One district going back to online-only instruction might not affect others, Beer said, giving the hypothetical example of Ontonagon and Ewen-Trout Creek.

Beer said the health department is also working on potential plans for distributing a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes ready. This week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked states to prepare for the potential distribution of a vaccine as early as late October. Some health experts have called the vaccine timeline unrealistic, and said the pre-Election Day goal raised concerns about the process being politicized.

General mass vaccination plans were in place already, but need to be modified for the COVID-19 era, Beer said.

“A lot of them had plans for gathering in schools,” she said. “We’ll have to look at a drive-through scenario.”

Another potential development is the introduction of rapid COVID-19 tests using a patient’s saliva. Beer said she had discussed the tests with representatives from the state Bureau of Laboratories last week.

The test itself is more difficult to run, and gives more exposure risk to the person administering the test, Beer said.

“We’re waiting to hear more guidance on that,” she said.

With the arrival of Labor Day weekend, Beer had the same advice she did for people celebrating the Fourth of July. People should wash their hands, and be careful around large gatherings.

People should try to maintain 6 feet of distance, and wear masks if around people from a different household. They should also try not to share food utensils.

As the flu season approaches, the health department is looking at the possibility of mass flu shot clinics. They are still waiting to see what their allotment of flu vaccine will be. While supplies are short, the department will prioritize based on greater need, such as populations that would not be able to access flu shots through a provider or commercial pharmacy.

“It’s only trickling in so far, so we’re waiting for greater amounts to come in,” she said.


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