The new coronavirus variants from the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa, combined with the variants found in the U.S. are creating concern at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a recent press conference, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that they could "dangerously accelerate the trajectory of the pandemic." She added that the new variants "could jeopardize the progress we have made in the last month if we let our guard down."
If you only take away one thing from this article, let it be this: Please keep practicing coronavirus protection protocols such as wearing face masks, social distancing, and washing your hands frequently.
What We Know So Far
Two weeks ago, the CDC reported almost 1,300 (1,299) cases of the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil variants in the U.S. Almost all of the cases (1,277) tested positive for the U.K. variant. One-third of all U.K. variant cases in the U.S. are in Florida. 19 of the 1,299 cases tested positive for the South African variant, while only two tests (one in Minnesota, one in Oklahoma) were positive for the Brazilian variant. These numbers aren't comprehensive; they are the result of analyzing a select group of positive COVID-19 samples.
Researchers from the Minnesota health department and the CDC released an analysis of patients with the B.1.1.7 variant (the U.K. strain), and it included data from eight Minnesota residents. Previous mathematical models of the U.K. variant showed that the strain, which is known to be more infectious but not necessarily more deathly, could become the main coronavirus strain in the U.S. by March. The study, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by the CDC, involved research subjects between the ages of 15 to 41 who were tested between mid-December and mid-January.
Five subjects reported similar symptoms to COVID-19, while three subjects did not experience any symptoms. None of the subjects had traveled to the U.K., but three were traveling internationally (to West Africa and the Dominican Republic) two weeks before they became ill. Another three subjects had been in California in the two weeks preceding their positive test result. One subject caught the virus at home, and another caught it from someone in the community. This data highlights the fact that the U.K. strain is already rampant in the U.S., and it's lingering and spreading. The CDC found the variant in 41 states and Washington, DC.
What We Can Do
As reports of the new variants continue to increase in the coming months, it's important to remember that you can still avoid getting infected by continuing to stay at home, wear face mask protection, social distance, and sanitize frequently. The CDC report also mentions implementing other mitigation efforts like "isolation of persons with diagnosed COVID-19, quarantine of close contacts of persons with COVID-19, and adherence to CDC travel guidance."
According to Walensky, we need "to do everything we can to decrease the spread." Essentially, the fewer people there are that are infected with the coroanvirus variants, the fewer opportunities there will be for infection to spread. Looking at the long-term, this translates to fewer variants overall in the future.
We Can Still Slow the Spread
In a separate CDC report, research from Zambia and other countries showed that the South African variant accelerated the number of cases in Zambia. It could have been the dominant strain in Zambia in the past few months as cases rapidly rose. Researchers also believe that the South African variant could be spreading in other regions of southern Africa because many other countries reported a rapid rise in cases in December and January, according to the report.
Walensky, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Dr. Henry Walke from the CDC also said that results from genomic sequencing found no cases of the South African variant in Zambia from March to early December 2020. But for one week in mid-December, the variant was found in 96% of positive cases analyzed. The rapid increase in variant cases accounted for a 16-fold rise in COVID-19 cases in Zambia from mid-December to early January. The report outlined that the South African variant is of concern due to "the potential for increased transmissibility and, thus, increases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths," and what happened in Zambia aligns closely with what could happen in the U.S.
According to the report, "The possibility of a similar experience in the U.S. is a real threat. However, such an outcome is not inevitable." We can prevent the rapid spread of the variants if we fight it with a strong, holistic, and immediate public health response. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group is creating a cohesive analysis of data across multiple government agencies, and the group is studying how the variants are impacted by the vaccines. They're also re-evaluating testing, looking into therapeutics, researching breakthrough infections occurring after vaccination, and studying reinfection.
This Is a Team Effort
The CDC is pushing for reducing transmission, accelerating vaccination, and increasing genomic sequencing for finer detail into infection data. Whereas right now state departments are testing 750 samples every week, the CDC is aiming for testing more than 6,000 samples per week.
But the CDC and Walensky stress that the public needs to help slow the spread by following CDC guidelines for masking up, avoiding crowds, and staying at home: "A concerted and well-coordinated public health effort, together with rapid and widespread uptake of effective vaccines, is essential" and can help us dampen if or when the pandemic's trajectory is changed irreversibly due to the variants.
We know that the last year has been an exhausting one filled with many unwelcome changes. But remember, we can put an end to this pandemic if we all continue to practice the basic coronavirus protection protocols like wearing face masks, washing our hands, and social distancing. Hang in there.
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