Covid 19: AstraZeneca, After Rebuke, Releases New Data Supporting Its Vaccine

A volunteer at a vaccination site at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., last Friday. 

Credit...Emily Elconin for The New York Times

In a sea of heartening news about the U.S. battle against the coronavirus, some experts are casting worried glances at a cloud on the horizon: Michigan, where new cases and hospitalizations are rising with alarming speed.

The seven-day average of new cases has more than doubled in the last two weeks and tripled in the last month, by far the nation’s fastest rate of growth. The average for hospitalizations has grown 55 percent in the past two weeks.

Michigan is now reporting more new cases each day, relative to the size of its population, than any state except New Jersey.

Epidemiologists and infectious disease experts have yet to settle on clear answers to explain the jumps in Michigan. New cases are rising statewide among all age groups except the very young and those 60 and over, said Sarah Lyon-Callo, the director of the state’s epidemiology bureau.

“However, in the majority of cases, we aren’t able to identify a source of exposure that made them sick,” she added.

There are potential explanations. On Feb. 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer eased a ban on indoor restaurant dining and gave a go-ahead to high school and college in-person instruction and high school sports. The state had eased restrictions on theaters, bowling alleys, casinos and other entertainment spots in January.

Michigan’s rate of new cases has been edging upward ever since. Many experts say they believe the public took the easing of restrictions too liberally.

“Because the government has allowed some things to open up, people have viewed that as a good thing to do,” said Dawn Misra, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University. “This is a really tricky part of public health messaging. Just because you’re allowed to be in restaurants and other places does not mean they are safe.”

Still, Illinois, a big nearby state that began slowly easing its own stiff restrictions in mid-January, has not seen a significant rise in new cases. Nor has neighboring Indiana, which has placed far fewer limits on its residents than either Michigan or Illinois.

That leads some authorities to pin much of the increase on another culprit: the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, first identified in Britain, which has proved to be more contagious and potentially deadlier than the original version that spread in the United States.

Federal health officials have expressed concerned about the spread of variants, as the United States remains behind in its attempts to track them. Britain, with a more centralized health care system, began a highly touted genetic sequencing program last year that allowed it to track the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s efforts to locate the variants have substantially improved in recent weeks and will continue to grow, in large part because of $1.75 billion in funds for genomic sequencing in the stimulus package that President Biden signed into law this month. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, told lawmakers last week that between 10,000 and 14,000 test samples were being sequenced each week to locate variants, and that the C.D.C. was aiming for about 25,000.

Officials in Michigan said this week the B.1.1.7 variant has turned up in about one-eighth of the thousands of positive test samples that the state has genetically analyzed so far this year. In mid-March, state health officials said Michigan accounted for 15 percent of all known cases of the variant in the U.S., second only to Florida.

Dr. Lyon-Callo, the state’s chief epidemiologist, said this week that although the B.1.1.7 variant is certainly a player in the increasing rate of new cases, more than half of the 908 confirmed variant cases in Michigan stem from a January outbreak at state prisons. That suggests that the variant is less widespread in the general population than the numbers might indicate.

Dr. Jennifer Morse, the medical director for district health departments in 19 counties in Michigan’s lower peninsula, said the nature of outbreaks in the region suggests that the variant has spread well beyond the limited number of documented cases there.

“We’ve had several outbreaks, and some have been quite rapid and large,” she said. “I do feel it’s very prevalent in our area, looking at how our numbers are going and how it’s spreading.”

But despite the worrisome trend in Michigan, experts offered reasons to be optimistic. The state’s vaccination program is robust; residents of the largest city, Detroit, have embraced masks and other measures that have resulted in lower rates of new cases than in many other places; and, as the weather warms, people are spending more time outside, where getting infected is less likely.

“What’s going very well for us in the U.S. now is seasonality and vaccinations,” said Ali H. Mokdad a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Life will change in the summer — as long as we behave.”

Noah Weiland contributed reporting.

Michael Wines

Source : https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/03/24/world/covid-vaccine-coronavirus-cases

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