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Michigan prisons looking for new variants of COVID-19

Image of a prison fence
Shayan Sanyal/flickr
MDOC is now looking for new variants of COVID-19. The new variant is more contagious.

The Michigan Department of Corrections is starting to send test results to a state lab to look for coronavirus variants.

The variant of the virus from the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7) is thought to be about 50% more transmissionable than the original strain. It was first detected in Washtenaw County in mid-January. The Kent County Health Department reported a case from the B.1.1.7 variant this weekend, adding that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has found 30 new variant cases in total. But only a small fraction of positive COVID-19 samples are sequenced in Michigan, so the actual number of cases with the UK variant is likely much higher.

The appearance of B.1.1.7  has activists worried. Josh Hoe is a policy analyst from Safe and Just Michigan, a criminal justice non-profit. Hoe said incarcerated people can't effectively socially distance, even with the original strain.  

"When I was incarcerated, I was in 160-person unit for most of the time. And everyone was mere feet away from each other at most," he said. "It is scary, it makes me more worried. But I think the the rate of contagion is incredibly high already in prison."

The original strain of the virus spread quickly in Michigan prisons. The MDOC says there have been nearly 24,600 cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people in Michigan since the pandemic began. 136 have died.

According to Chris Gautz, a MDOC spokesperson, prisons had 628 positive results in the last 14 days with 34,488 tests conducted as of Friday. 

"We test weekly all prisoners and staff who haven’t had a positive in the last 90 days. This occurs at 27 of our 28 facilities. If a facility can go 14 days without a positive test result, they can come off the testing cycle, per the DHHS order," he wrote in an email. 



Dr. Adam Lauring is an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan.  

"We know that prisons are fertile grounds for the virus to transmit. And so, I think if you had a more transmissible or contagious variants in prison, it would potentially infect more people."

Lauring said in the United Kingdom, studies showed that households with the B.1.1.7 variant had more "secondary cases" than households with the original COVID-19 strain. 

So if the new variant enters prisons, could people in prisons get reinfected?

Lauring said there have been cases of people being reinfected with the original strain. 

"I don't think there's any reason to think that people would be less likely to get reinfected with variants," he explained. "Some people might think that you may be more likely because your immunity might not be quite tailored to the changes in the virus that have happened. We don't really know that."

"I think bottom line is reinfections can happen. And so it's possible that people in jails and prisons could get reinfected."

Corrections staff are currently eligable for the vaccine, falling under 1B of the state's vaccination plan. However, some staff members have been declining the opportunity. 

Four staff members have died and over 3,500 have been infected.  

The CDC had recommended incarcerated people should be prioritized at the same time as corrections staff. But Michigan has not done that. Most incarcerated people's turn for the vaccine comes later in the year, along with the general public. 

For Hoe, the continuing spread of the virus underscores the importance of distributing the vaccine in the prison. Incarcerated people, he said, fall under high-risk categories. 

"In a situation where people can't take care of their own health care, because they're incarcerated and their health care is literally dependent on us and they're in a situation where they can't socially distance, it is incredibly important that we vaccinate people as quickly as humanly possible," Hoe said. 

"We have to do whatever we have to do to ensure that those people weren't sentenced to die from COVID."



This post was last updated on Feb. 9 at 10:35 a.m. A previous version stated MDOC was looking for volunteers to use the longer test piece that may be better at finding variants. Gautz said MDOC learned later that the test piece they are currently using, which is shorter, works to find variants.



Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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