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COVID variant found in Houghton County; vaccine eligibility widens

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Sylvia Ortiz gets her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Nicole Niemi, public health nurse with the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, at Heritage Manor in early February.

HANCOCK — The B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 has been discovered in five Houghton County cases, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department announced Monday afternoon.

The B.1.1.7 variant, believed to have originated in the United Kingdom, is about 50% more contagious. The WUPHD received notification of the virus from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

There are 1,649 cases of the variant in Michigan, most downstate. The variant has also been found in Marquette County.

The WUPHD has yet to trace the new cases, but will contact the cases if they are within the quarantine period, WUPHD Medical Director Kate Beer said. The new variant requires additional measures, such as a strict 14-day quarantine.

The five cases mean there are probably more within Houghton County and the five-county jurisdiction, Beer said.

“We’re concerned,” she said. “The variant spreads faster, and now we have people coming back from spring break that probably could have been exposed to the virus elsewhere. So we’re going to be pretty vigilant and watching what the numbers look like over the next few weeks.”

Beer said residents should continue mitigation strategies, including mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and getting a vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

Those vaccines have been found effective against new variants, including B1.1.7. COVID-19 vaccinations opened up to include everyone 16 and older starting Monday in Michigan.

Vaccinations will still be set up by appointment only. For information about how to make appointments with local providers, people can go to coppercountrystrong.com/vaccine or call 211.

“We’re looking at possibly doing a mass clinic, but that would be a ways off,” Beer said.

As of Monday, 35.5% of the population over 16 in the five-county area has received at least one vaccine shot, and 54.7% of those over 49.

“We’ve been very successful at using all the doses that have been distributed to us,” Beer said.

While information about signups Monday was not available, as of the end of last week, the waitlist in Houghton County was about 800 people, Beer said. That’s down from a peak of about 2,000. Beer said the waiting list would take one or two weeks to work through. Baraga, Gogebic and Iron counties have seen even steeper declines, she said.

Some people under 50 have already been eligible for vaccines, such as caregivers or those with underlying conditions.

Older population groups and those with underlying conditions will still be prioritized, Beer said.

“We will make sure that when the people within those groups call, we will get them in as fast as possible,” she said.

Last week, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people can travel with low risk. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their final dose.

While Michigan has seen one of the largest increases in the country in COVID-19 cases this month, the picture locally has been more mixed.

Houghton County has a seven-day average of 117.8 cases per million as of March 31, a 14-day downward trend. That number, and the 6.1% for positive cases, are less than half the state average. Michigan’s rate has jumped to 534 cases per million — up fivefold from February, with a positivity rate of 15%.

But the local numbers are also well above than the post-holiday low in February before the relaxation of some COVID guidelines. The seven-day average for positivity rate in Houghton County dipped as low as 1.8% in early February, while the average number of cases was as low as 86.

Testing rates have dipped in Houghton County. As of March 31, the seven-day average was 76 tests per day, about half the rate from a month prior. Beer said some had been hesitant to get tested with spring break coming up.

Beer said she was concerned about the potential for cases to rise as K-12 students and families return from spring break on Tuesday.

At least locally, university spring break had not resulted in a significant increase. Michigan Technological University conducted a voluntary testing clinic for students from March 19-23 after they returned for spring break. Testing over the past 14 days showed a positivity rate of 1%.

In the meantime, Beer hopes numbers can stay down while vaccinations ramp up.

“We’re still encouraging the washing of hands, social distancing and the wearing of masks, particularly if you’re going together during the break here,” Beer said.

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