DETROIT – The Michigan health department has identified 90 cases of the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 at a prison in West Michigan.
The cases were identified through daily testing of all prisoners and staff at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia. Of the 90 new cases, 88 are prisoners and two are employees, according to a news release issued Tuesday by Michigan State Police.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the variant is still in the relative early stages of spreading in the country, but the organization has said it could soon become the nation’s dominant virus strain.
CDC variant data, last updated on Tuesday, showed 1,277 reported cases of B.1.1.7 across the U.S.
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The facility began daily testing last week after a case of the B.1.1.7 variant, known as the U.K. variant, was confirmed in a staff member on Feb. 8.
The testing regimen involves a daily test with a rapid test. If a rapid test result comes back positive, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is taken and sent to a state lab for testing for the variant.
Of the first set of samples sent to the state lab, 90 out of 95 were found to have the variant. More than 100 lab results were still pending as of Tuesday evening.
The variant is believed to spread more easily than other previously identified strains. Current data show that vaccines are effective against the variant.
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At Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, 705 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, and 332 of those cases were active as of Tuesday. One prisoner has died.
The Michigan Department of Corrections says 122 staff at Bellamy Creek have tested positive.
Experts warn of variant-driven fourth wave
Public health experts said they dread the possibility of a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, this one catalyzed by variants.
More contagious variants of the virus have raced across Europe, South Africa and Latin America and have now all arrived in the U.S.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said that if the infectiousness and case fatality rate for the variant known as B.1.1.7, turns out to be the same in the U.S. as it is in the U.K., “I worry we could reach a staggering death toll by the summer and fall.”
The two vaccines available in the U.S., one by Pfizer-BioNTech and the other by Moderna, appear to be effective against these variants, said Hatziioannou, who published a study on the subject.
But these variants are likely to make targeted drugs such as monoclonal antibodies less effective. They will continue to change and eventually will evade vaccines and diagnostic tests if they keep spreading, she said.
Now is the time, she and others said, to double-down on precautions, to avoid a deadly fourth wave and finally bring the virus under control.
Contributing: Karen Weintraub and Jay Cannon, USA TODAY
Angie Jackson, covers the challenges of formerly incarcerated citizens as a corps member with Report for America. Her work is supported by The GroundTruth Project and the Hudson-Webber Foundation.
Follow reporter Angie Jackson on Twitter: @AngieJackson23
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