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Northern Michigan health officials say coronavirus variant is causing larger outbreaks

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Northern Michigan public health officials said Thursday that the growing prevalence of the U.K. COVID-19 variant, which is more contagious than the original strain of the virus, is making outbreaks increasingly difficult to control.

Clusters of the virus are increasingly concentrated in younger members of the population, now that nearly 70% of people older than 75 are vaccinated in some counties, said Dr. Josh Meyerson, the medical director for three local health departments in the northern Lower Peninsula.

“Some of our outbreaks seem to end up growing bigger, and they take longer to control,” said Meyerson. “In some cases we have documented that the variant was the predominant strain. Other ones we can surmise that.”

The B.1.1.7 variant that was first detected in Britain is Michigan’s most common variant. It’s been detected in more than 1,600 cases and continues to spread. Alpena County saw its first four known cases on Thursday.

As the virus spreads among younger Michiganders, the average age of people hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment has also been falling.

Many people who had been most vulnerable to the virus are now, because they’ve been vaccinated, largely protected from it, said Lisa Peacock, health officer for the Benzie-Leelanau and Northwest Michigan health departments. But now younger people are more vulnerable.

“This virus is still very dangerous for everyone, and it’s not – it doesn’t necessarily have respect for age, and, you know, everyone continues to be at risk until we get that widespread community immunity that we need.”

Cases are increasing overall, faster than health departments can keep up, spurred partly by outbreaks in schools and youth sports.

As a result, Peacock said, her health departments are asking people to do their own contact tracing, just as they did over the winter when cases last spiked.

“If you are told by any provider that you have tested positive for COVID, you need to isolate yourself for 10 days and notify your close contacts that they need to quarantine for 14 days,” she said. “You may not get a timely call from the health department.”

Peacock, Meyerson, and other health officials said masking and distancing will help control the spread of coronavirus variants, just as they do with the original strain. But they said the key to getting life back to normal is a high vaccination rate across all population groups.

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