The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department announced Thursday that two county residents have tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant, known as the U.K. COVID-19 variant.
County health officials were notified by the California Department of Public Health about the variants being discovered. The cases are unrelated to one another and neither case reported travel abroad, according to health officials.
Both individuals completed their isolation period and are no longer infectious. The county’s Disease Control and Prevention Unit will continue investigating the case and completing contact tracing efforts. No other cases had been identified with the variant, according to officials.
Last month, CDPH issued a health alert regarding the increasing identification of the COVID-19 virus variants in the state, the country and internationally. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified four “variants of concern,” which include the U.K. variant, B.1.351 (known as the South African variant), P.1 (the Brazilian variant), and B.1.427 and B.1.429 (the West Coast variants).
Only two cases of the U.K. variant have been identified in the county, according to officials.
As of March 11, there were 265 known cases caused by variant B.1.1.7 in California. CDPH considers it to be a variant of concern because it is thought to be more contagious and likely to cause greater illness or severe disease.
Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease specialist at Cottage Health, shared a video on Tuesday about the variants of the COVID-19 strain.
All of the variants of concern are suspected to be more infectious, cause more severe disease or evade the immune system even when someone has been previously infected or vaccinated, she said.
The CDC has also identified three variants of interest, including B.1.526, B.1.525 and P.2.
“These are variants recognized as important that are being actively studied to understand whether or not they have features of concern,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said.
She explained that the “vast majority” of positive COVID-19 tests in the U.S. are not being sent for variant testing. She added that the usual PCR or antigen tests that are conducted are not able to determine whether there is a variant of concern or interest.
“The test for variants involves a more intensive technique called sequencing to actually understand the specific RNA code and compare that sequence to the sequences of variants of interest or concern and other variants that we know about,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said.
During the video, she said that the current vaccines seem to be “a really excellent match” to combat the variants. Dr. Fitzgibbons then shared a recent online journal from the outlet “Nature,” which included authors looking at more than one million positive COVID-19 cases in the U.K between November and February to determine whether B.1.1.7 was found.
The authors found that there was not much presence of the variant in November, though “there was a huge shift” by January and February, which made it clear that the variant was causing the vast majority of infections.
The authors also examined the variants’ impact on deaths, which was found in “almost all the deaths” reported in February. The study also found that those with the variant were less likely to survive.
The overall difference in survival between those who had the variants and those who didn’t was about 0.64%. Dr. Fitzgibbons noted that more than 99.4% of those in both groups survived.
“We simply can’t lose sight of this,” she said. “It’s (an) important difference, but a slightly more subtle one, especially when we’re thinking in the big picture.”
Variant testing is increasing through the California Department of Public Health, and the local public health lab and officials are working to expand these efforts, she added.
Locally, Cottage Health, Pacific Diagnostics and UCSB have launched collaborative variant surveillance projects.
“Variants are going to continue to be an important part of this next chapter of the pandemic for us,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “And the more we learn about variants and the variants circulating in our communities, the stronger and more empowered we are. In many ways, we have not yet been in such a fragile or more critical position as we are currently.”
While local case rates are dropping and vaccination efforts are ramping up, Dr. Fitzgibbons urged residents to continue following health guidelines.
“We know that more infectious and more dangerous variants have the potential to cause more disruption,” she said. “Let’s stay strong, with a recommitment this spring to wearing our masks, to staying safe and healthy in this wonderful Santa Barbara outdoor climate as much as possible, and let’s also commit to getting our vaccines when it’s our turn.
“These vaccines continue to work incredibly well against the variants that are circulating.”