22 positive cases tied to virus mutation
Santa Barbara County Public Health officials say the latest report from a UCSB virology lab discovered 22 positive COVID-19 tests associated with the U.K. virus mutation, which accounted for nearly one-third of the tests evaluated in the sample.
The health department, in collaboration with Cottage Health and the UCSB Virology Lab, is monitoring the spread of mutations of COVID-19 in the region. In a sample of 67 positive COVID-19 tests from March, researchers discovered 22 tests with the U.K. variant type, 29 tests with the California/West Coast variant type and 16 tests associated with the original COVID-19 virus strain.
The discovery comes as federal health experts are sounding the alarm over the spread of the aggressive U.K. variant, also known as B.1.1.7, which has now become the most prevalent strain circulating in the U.S., according to Dr. Rochelle Walenksy, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Based on our most recent estimates from CDC surveillance, the B.1.1.7 variant is now the most common lineage circulation in the United States,” Dr. Walenksy told the White House on Wednesday.
Research is ongoing to determine just how contagious the U.K. variant is compared to other mutations, but early results suggest B.1.1.7 is “considerably more contagious than the original virus,” according to the National Institute of Health.
States like Michigan, Maryland and Minnesota, among others, are currently seeing case surges likely caused by the infectious U.K. variant. Despite these surges in the East, Dr. Henning Ansorg, the public health officer for the county, said he is not alarmed by the spread of the mutation locally.
The California strain, which is still the most prevalent COVID-19 variant in the county, has been labeled as a “variant of concern” by the CDC and is already more aggressive than mutations seen in the Midwest and East Coast. Dr. Ansorg said he is hopeful there could be some protection from the effects of the contagious U.K. variant.
“Our thinking here locally is that the California/Western type variant might be a little protective or might make it more difficult for the U.K. variant to really take hold compared to the Midwest part of the county,” Dr. Ansorg told the News-Press on Wednesday.
Officials remain confident that current vaccines still provide protection against the known virus strains. Dr. Ansorg said virus mutations are common and nothing out of the ordinary, though some mutations can become stronger than others. This, he said, is what researchers are currently witnessing with the aggressive California/Western and U.K. variants.
“(Variants) are just going to be something that we have to live with as long as coronavirus is here, and we just have to make sure that our vaccines work against newcomers,” Dr. Ansorg said. “For now, they do, which is wonderful. That’s why I’m not so alarmed because those aggressive type virus strains will become more predominant, and that’s just the nature of the virus spreading in people. As long as our vaccination (rates) go up, we should be in a good position to beat this thing.”
The best way to protect against the U.K. variant is the same as all other strains — wear a mask, avoid crowds and get a vaccine as soon as possible, Dr. Ansorg advised.
Health officials largely agree that expanding vaccinations will be the key to reducing the effects of variants that will inevitably spread so long as COVID-19 exists.
Dr. Marjorie Newman, the medical director of Sansum Clinic, called the vaccine effort a “race against time” at this point, as local officials are working to diminish the effects of variants through inoculation. She said it is important that people in the county sign up for vaccine appointments as soon as possible to avoid another surge in cases.
“I think (what’s happening in the Midwest) is a cautionary tale for us … my hope is that we’re not in the eye of the hurricane and just waiting for the rest to hit,” Dr. Newman said. “My hope is that we are truly going to see a sustained decline and continue to vaccinate people and have this (pandemic) in our rearview mirror. And I’m not sure we can say that with one hundred percent assurance at all yet.”
While California is seeing increased numbers of cases associated with the U.K. variant, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that he plans to dissolve the tier system by June 15 if vaccinations increase and hospitalizations remain low.
Dr. Ansorg said he believes this is a reasonable projection from the governor, especially as cases are trending downward statewide and vaccine eligibility is rapidly expanding.
“If we don’t see a fourth surge (of cases) and the hospitalizations stay low across the state, then there is really no reason why we shouldn’t open up more … I agree with Gov. Newsom’s approach,” Dr. Ansorg said. “I think it’s proactive, and I think it’s reasonable.”