Pueblo health official discusses COVID variant identified in Colorado
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A new strain of the novel coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom has been discovered in Colorado, and public health officials say there’s currently no way to tell where else the variant may have spread.
The first known U.S. case of the variant, called B117, was identified by Colorado health officials Tuesday. State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said in a press conference Wednesday that the case identified in Elbert County, as well as a second suspected case, involve Colorado National Guard personnel.
Dr. Chris Urbina, medical director for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment, said public health officials have a variety of concerns about the new variant, which has, to this point, not extensively been studied in the U.S.
But the good news, Urbina said, is that data collected from scientists in he U.K. indicates that though the new variant seems to be significantly more contagious — models show it has a transmission rate 70 percent higher than other variants in the U.K. — it does not seem to be more deadly.
And the methods to treat and prevent the spread of the disease are largely the same.
“The bottom line is that we want to make sure that it doesn’t cause more severe illness, that we can still treat it with our current drugs and medications and also hopefully the vaccines,” Urbina said.
He noted that vaccine manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca are already beginning to test their vaccines against the new variant.
“And the current thinking is that the vaccine — because (the variant) is just small changes on the spike proteins of the virus and vaccines are protective against multiple components of the virus — are likely to be effective in protecting us against this variant.”
All viruses mutate, Urbina said, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is no different.
“Generally, most of those variants or mutations aren't’ significant. So they go undetected, largely,” Urbina said.
“But this one in particular has been discovered in England, and they noticed because they do a lot more surveillance (of cases) than we do here in the United States ... so they noticed it early.”
Because the U.S. has not performed genetic sequencing of the virus to anywhere near the scale of the U.K., Urbina said it likely has already spread into other communities.
“It’s hard to say (if the variant is) in Pueblo,” Urbina said.
"Once we found it in Colorado that means it’s likely to be in other places as well. I think once they start testing more and once we do more surveillance ... we’ll be able to answer that question.”
In studying the new variant, Urbina said U.K. researchers found it’s comprised more than half of new coronavirus cases, but the mortality rate has not seen a notable change.
“If you look at the data in the U.K., they’re obviously having a major outbreak just like we are in the United States, but it doesn’t seem to have an increased number of hospitalizations or deaths related to this new variant," Urbina said.
But because the variant is new in the U.S., he said it will be critical for public health officials to identify the variant through genomic sequencing to have a better understanding of the variant.
"I think it’s too early to say whether or not (the variant) will be more serious,” Urbina said.
“That’s why ongoing surveillance is critical. And now that we’ve stepped up our surveillance in the U.S., hopefully that will help us as well.”
Another encouraging element of the new variant, Urbina said, is that it seems to be detectable by current testing techniques and can be prevented in the same ways the public is preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
“The good news is that the same protections that we’re doing now — and I know people get tired of hearing this, but wearing a facial covering, washing your hands, keeping that 6-foot distance, limiting your gatherings to your immediate household — are all protective of whatever variant is there,” Urbina said.
“When we can all participate in those prevention strategies and get vaccinated when it becomes available for the general public, it will go a long way to reducing the amount of spread in the community. And really that’s our goal.”
Contact Chieftain reporter Zach Hillstrom at email@example.com.