Officials say to be prepared for COVID-19 variant's spread in SWMI

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- One of the new coronavirus variants has now made its way to Southwest Michigan.

Van Buren County confirmed one case of the United Kingdom variant Monday night.

Now, health officials say people should prepare for it to spread to nearby counties.

That UK strain was first detected on the east side of the state last month and is more contagious than the original coronavirus strain.

As for being deadlier? That’s something experts can’t say for sure yet.

“This is normal for a virus to mutate, some variants just die away and we never really know they’re there and others persist as they can get people sicker, quicker,” said Gillian Conrad, MPH, Communications Manager at the Berrien County Health Department.

The Van Buren/Cass District Health Department said they were able to detect the variant thanks to Michigan having a Bureau of Laboratories, which is now sequencing the genetic makeup of COVID-19 tests to check for mutations.

“The variant itself was discovered from a test in late January but because the of the sequencing process we just found out about it this weekend, so our team now will double back with their contacts to determine if any were positive,” said Danielle Persky, Deputy Health Officer at the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department.

Now that it’s this close to home, the Berrien County Health Department is not only expecting the UK strain to pop up in the county, but for the highly contagious variant to spread rapidly.

“Once present they become endemic, meaning it becomes the predominant strain we’ll experience,” said Conrad. “It’s predicted that the UK variant will be the predominant strain here in Michigan by March.”

But the British strain is only one of the COVID-19 mutations that’s now emerging and others entering the United States could be much deadlier.

“It’s not the South African variant which is one we’re cautiously watching out for because that’s the one scientists are less certain the vaccine will protect against,” said Persky.

Since the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department needs to re-assess those close contacts of the individual who tested positive, more cases of the UK variant could be confirmed within the week.

The Berrien County Health Department will host a virtual panel with Spectrum Health Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. on their Facebook Page to further address the new strain.

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