‘Wear Your Mask’ : Health Dept. Issues Warning as UK COVID-19 Strain Arrives

By Brian Carlton

January 25, 2021

One person in Northern Virginia tested positive for the new strain, marking the first case in the Commonwealth.

RICHMOND-Now’s the time to take precautions. The Virginia Department of Health issued that statement Monday, reporting that a new strain of the COVID-19 virus is here in the Commonwealth. An adult resident of Northern Virginia tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, first found in the United Kingdom. 

Health officials said they expected to see different strains appear. As the virus spreads, it makes copies of itself. Sometimes, those copies have tiny genetic changes called mutations. That’s what creates a new strain. 

“Viruses change all the time, and we expect to see new strains as disease spreads,” said Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver. “We know this variant strain spreads more quickly between people than other strains currently circulating in our communities, but we still have more to learn about whether it causes more severe illness.” 

As Oliver said, this version spreads quicker than the current one. The United Kingdom’s science advisory group released a report Jan. 22, warning that the strain could cause some serious problems. 

“There is evidence from analysis of Pillar 2 testing data linked to COVID-19 deaths that infection with B1.1.7 is associated with an increased case fatality rate,” the report says. “The relative increase appears to be apparent across age groups.” 

Medical officials first identified the strain in September 2020. Now, the Centers for Disease Control says, it is “highly prevalent in London and southeast England.”

Four months later, the strain is showing up in multiple countries, including the US. Currently, there are almost 200 cases of the strain reported in 23 states. That includes Virginia, after Monday’s announcement. 

RELATED: Virginia Restructures Where Vaccine Gets Distributed

Vaccine Still Effective

There’s no reason to panic, however. Virginia Health Department officials said testing shows current vaccines work on this new strain. In a press conference Monday, Moderna officials presented the findings from their latest test, confirming that data. They also announced plans to test a “booster” dose of the company’s vaccine. 

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are advancing an emerging variant booster candidate,” said Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive officer. “[This will] determine if it will be more effective to boost against this and potentially future variants.” 

Pfizer’s vaccine has also been proven effective against the new strain, according to a report by the University of Texas. Researchers used blood samples from 20 people who received the vaccine to test against the new strain. They found that antibodies from those vaccine recipients fought off the variant.

Now the only challenge involves getting the vaccine to local residents. Over the last few days, Dogwood spoke with everyone from the Virginia Health Department to hospitals and local health districts. The answer was the same, as people said they simply didn’t have enough vaccine doses. 

“Demand is greatly outpacing supply,” said Tammie Smith, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health. “It is safe to say that all Americans—hospitals, private providers, pharmacies, and local health departments—want more doses than are currently available.” 

In fact, the situation’s reached a point where local health districts have scaled back events. In some cases, they’ve even set up waitlists to organize distribution.  The problem won’t change anytime soon. For at least the next month, VDH is only anticipating shipments of about 105,000 doses per week.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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