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School kids are spreading COVID in northern Michigan


The largest health care system in northern Michigan, Munson Healthcare, has more patients hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic. That includes in late November, when no one was yet vaccinated. 


Public health officials believe the spread of more infectious variants among school-aged children may be to blame for the recent outbreak. 


How much is the U.K. variant responsible for the increased cases? 

In some areas, it’s not just community spread but explosive outbreaks behind the rise in cases. One public health expert suspects the B.1.1.7 variant is responsible for 30 to 50% of cases in parts of the region. 

“It’s like someone dropped a powder keg of COVID off in a location,” says Jennifer Morse, of District Health Department #10, that covers much of northwestern Michigan. 

Of people seeking testing in Munson's coverage area, more than 16 percenthave tested positive for COVID-19. That means there’s probably not enough testing in the community. 

Currently, more than 43% of residents in region 7 are fully vaccinated. 

“I shudder to think what would happen [with hospitalizations] if we didn’t have that breadth of coverage,” says Munson’s Christine Nefcy.

How are kids contributing to the spread?

It appears that children are now responsible for many of the state’s new cases, as they return to sports, parties and classes.

Across Michigan, cases in the 19 and younger group have more than doubled in the past month, while cases among children younger than nine have more than tripled, according to state data.

That’s a significant departure from earlier in the pandemic when health departments said children, especially young children, were not playing a major role in transmitting the virus. 

Now, there’s some question if the new, more infectious variant is changing that dynamic.

“Since the variant is more contagious, the virus could potentially infect more people with less exposure,” says Joshua Meyerson with District Health Department #4.

Some health officials also wonder if fewer people got infected in Michigan over the past several months because of tighter restrictions, which might have left more people susceptible to infection now.

What’s happening with middle and high schools in Grand Traverse County this week?

The county’s health department has asked schools to go online while they investigate 43 school-related cases. 

Teenangers and children account for 20% of the county’s cases in March, according to one health official. 

Increased testing should help identify infections tied to schools.

This week, TCAPS provided large-scale testing for families that traveled during Spring Break. State-mandated school sports testing is now also beginning.

What guidance is coming from public health officials? 

Despite the surge in cases, the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control hasn’t changed guidelines regarding social distancing in light of the variants. The state has also largely avoided imposing new restrictions to reign in Michigan’s spread.

For those who recently traveled, the CDC and local health departments recommend quarantining if you’re not fully vaccinated. 

Because of the high number of cases, the state health department requires unvaccinated people to quarantine for a full 14 days if a close contact tested positive. That’s after health departments have reported COVID cases that developed beyond 10 days following exposure. 

Local departments ask people to call close contacts when they test positive. The departments say they won’t be able to reach out to most people. They’re overwhelmed with tracking new cases and running vaccination clinics.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.