Michigan was warned about the British COVID-19 variant, but many ignored it

Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press, and Mohar Chatterjee, Derek Kravitz and Bianca Fortis, Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Respiratory Therapist Eralda Bendaj, 31, talks with a COVID-19 patient as she performs a home oxygen study to check his blood oxygen levels to see if he will need oxygen once he is discharged from Beaumont Hospital in Farmington Hills, Mich. on Dec. 17, 2020.

DETROIT – Local health departments across Michigan started sounding the alarm months ago.

A deadlier coronavirus variant that had first ravaged Britain was now here — in metro Detroit, at the University of Michigan, a state prison in Ionia and rural counties in the Thumb region — with doctors, nurses and public health officials fully aware.

And yet Michiganders — from state prison employees to small business owners and local officials to parents of high school athletes — ignored medical experts’ repeated warnings about the highly infectious variant. They rebuffed stay-in-place recommendations, allowed crowded events to occur and turned a blind eye to defiant behavior, according to thousands of internal health department emails and contact tracing notes from across the state and interviews with those in charge.

All the while, schools and restaurants reopened and mask and quarantine rules were relaxed. Overwhelmed health departments struggled to talk to oftentimes-angry infected patients, battled with school superintendents and parents who wanted a return to youth sports and fought losing battles to institute lockdowns or change state policy.

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