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What does the new variant of COVID-19 mean for Central Texas?

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Posted at 5:42 PM, Dec 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-30 18:42:08-05

America's first known case of a more contagious coronavirus variant was discovered this week in Colorado. This particular strand, called B.1.1.7, was first identified in UK back in September.

The World Health Organization says this strand can now be found in 26 countries, but what does that mean for Central Texas?

First off, healthcare professionals told 25 News that it is completely normal for a virus to mutate and change. In fact, studies show COVID-19 has at least one mutation in its genome every two weeks, but this particular strand has more than one.

The variant was confirmed in Colorado thanks to the not-so widely used sequence testing.

“We’ve been doing common test, which have a result of positive or negative, but of all the 17 million cases of COVID in the US, we’ve only done sequencing on about 51,000 of those,” explained Karen Percell, Executive Director of Quality Management at Advent Health.

The Colorado State Laboratory Confirmed the B.1.1.7 variant through a detailed analysis of the strand. Colorado public health officials say the variant was found in a man in his 20s with no travel history.

With this preliminary information, Percell explained, “With the assumption that he had no history of international travel, and they haven’t yet traced it to an international person exposing him, I think that just reiterates the potential that this variant of COVID-19 has been in the U.S. and it’s out there, but we’re just discovering it because there was sequencing done.”

But if virus mutate all the time, what makes this one special? Percell explains research from the UK and Canada shows that the symptoms for B 1.1.7 are the same as the normal strand of COVID-19, but there is an alarming difference.

“We know that it’s spreading easier and faster, but we don’t see an increase in the severity of illness,” Percell added.

“The reality is that it probably will if it's not already here in Texas. It’s just one more part of the virus we have to deal with,” said Kelly Craine with the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.

While it’s too early to say what impact this strand will have on Central Texas, Craine says this does not change the precautions we’ve all been taking since March.

“It’s already something that we have seen that can spread efficiently, so this just amps it up one more notch," she said.

Both Percell and Craine say the best way to protect yourself from any strand of the coronavirus is wearing your mask, social distancing, avoiding large crowds and practicing good hand hygiene

The CDC says they are working to understand how the different strands of COVID-19 work, how they are alike, different, and if the current vaccines uphold their efficacy. Dr. William Schnaffner, an advisor to the CDC, says at this time, about 99% of the mutations are the same, so the vaccine would still work. However they are doing more tests just to be sure.

The CDC is also launching a new task force come January that will be solely focused on researching and identifying COVID-19 mutations, focusing first on those areas they classify as having a high variant spread, which would be the UK, South Africa and Nigeria.