The decision stems from positive test results for SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7, a variant seen as anywhere from 30 to 80 percent more transmissible than the original strain of the virus. First detected from Kent in England from samples taken in September, it has hurried across Europe, spreading more widely than health officials would have anticipated from the original coronavirus given restrictions the United Kingdom and other countries have implemented. As The Washington Post reported Friday, Danish scientists have found a 70 percent increase per week in cases involving the variant, despite a strict lockdown.
It first turned up within the United States in Colorado in late December. By Jan. 6, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported 52 cases in the country, in five states. While experts have deemed the presence of a variant a predictable development, and while there has been no evidence of a harsher virulence, the fear is that the capacity for infecting more people would lead to more illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.
“Canceling competitions is never something we want to do,” Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel said in the statement, “but with so many unknowns about this variant of COVID-19, we must do everything we can to minimize the spread among student-athletes, coaches, staff, and to the student-athletes at other schools.” The statement noted, “Team members (student-athletes, coaches, and team staff) must immediately isolate/quarantine effective Jan. 23 and until further notice and up to 14 days (Feb. 7).”
The most visible teams affected are the Michigan basketball teams, which have soared early this season. The men are ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll after opening 13-1, including lopsided wins over three ranked Big Ten teams since New Year’s Day. The women are ranked No. 11, finally taking their first defeat Thursday (at No. 17 Ohio State) after 10 wins to start the season.
The suspension of athletic activities left the men with four upcoming games listed as postponed: at Penn State on Wednesday, at home against Indiana on Jan. 30, at Northwestern on Feb. 3, and at home against Michigan State on Feb. 6. The next game would be a home matchup with Illinois on Feb. 11.
It left the women with six games postponed: at home against Purdue on Sunday, at Michigan State on Tuesday, vs. Michigan State on Thursday, at Rutgers on Feb. 1, at home against Minnesota on Feb. 4 and at home against Maryland on Feb. 7. The women have a game at Purdue for Feb. 11 as next on their schedule.
Saturday’s announcement was the latest blow from the virus on the college basketball season, which has seen schedules routinely disrupted, with Duke and Virginia among the women’s teams that have canceled their seasons altogether. It follows last season’s cancellation of the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments in the early days of the pandemic; this year’s events are slated to be held in one region — the men in the Indianapolis area and the women expected to be focused on San Antonio.
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