COVID-19 variants raise concerns
COVID-19 variants are in the news recently. Health experts believe one variant in particular — B.1.1.7, also known as the U.K. variant — is now the predominant COVID-19 strain circulating and the cause of case upticks.
To help shed light on these concerns, we talked with Patsy Stinchfield, senior director of infection prevention and nurse practitioner at Children’s Minnesota. She explains everything you need to know about the current COVID-19 variants.
What are COVID-19 variants?
Viruses survive with replication in cells. They can only replicate when the host is non-immune. Sometimes as viruses replicate, or make more copies of themselves, there is a genetic error in making the copies which makes a new type, or variant, of the virus. Sometimes these new variants are weaker and can even fade out and at other times they can become more contagious or more dangerous to others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says:
“Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic.”
As of April 2021, the CDC says there are five of what are called Variants of Concern (VOC) in the United States for COVID-19:
- B.1.1.7: First identified in the U.S. in December 2020 and was initially detected in the United Kingdom. This is now the main strain of COVID circulating in Minnesota.
- B.1.351: First identified in the U.S. at the end of January 2021 and was initially detected in South Africa in December 2020.
- P.1: First detected in the U.S. in January 2021. This variant was initially identified in travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan, in early January.
- B.1.427 and B.1.429: These two variants were first identified in California in February 2021 and were classified as VOCs in March 2021. These are being monitored in Minnesota with genomic testing of clusters of outbreaks and other samples.
The CDC explains that a VOC is a variant that may increase:
- More severe disease (increased hospitalizations or deaths).
- Significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination.
- Reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.
- Diagnostic detection failures.
Are there COVID-19 variants in Minnesota?
As of April 19, 2021, the CDC’s COVID-19 variant case tracker reports at least 1,573 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant (United Kingdom), five of the P.1. variant, and 26 cases reported of the B.1.351 variant across Minnesota alone. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says there are also cases of the B.1.427 and B.1.429 variants in the state. MDH reports these variants are more contagious.
The B.1.1.7 variant is of most concern in Minnesota right now because it:
- Has become the most common variant in Minnesota.
- Currently accounts for more than half of positive test samples.
- Can be 50 percent more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus due to double the spikes that attach in our airways and because it has a “stickiness” that allows it to adhere to our receptor cells in the airways and lungs easier leading to more infections.
- Spreads more easily than the original virus.
- May be linked with a higher death rate and more severe disease compared to other variants.
How are the COVID-19 variants spreading?
In MDH’s March 8, 2021, news release they said, “Since late January, at least 84 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to participants in both school-sponsored and club sports activities, including hockey, wrestling, basketball, alpine skiing, and other sports.” Many have asked if kids are now getting COVID more, spreading more easily or having more severe disease.
“The variant is more contagious so, kids under 16 are not vaccinated leaving them open to infections and then potentially infecting other kids and adults. It seems to be proportional both in the UK and what we are seeing in the US that where cases increase overall, so do cases in kids,” said Patsy.
Because Minnesota is now the third highest state with the most B.1.1.7. variants after Michigan and Florida, it is no surprise that we are seeing an increase in younger age groups. “There isn’t any evidence that this variant cause more severe disease or hospitalizations in kids,” Patsy said. “Children’s Minnesota’s positive infections is up slightly but our hospitalizations are about the same as they have been throughout the pandemic which is an average of six per day.”
How do we stop the COVID-19 variants spread?
Because of the outbreak of the B.1.1.7 variant in Carver County youth sports, health officials are recommending all Minnesota youth sports enforce: active screening, weekly testing of athletes and coaches, no gatherings before/after games (e.g., team dinners, parties, sleepovers), and strict enforcement of proper masking. According to their recent news release from April 22, 2021, “As the state emphasizes testing in sports and the protective benefits this offers, participants in outdoor sports will have the option to remove their face covering while on the field or court,” said MDH. “Face coverings must continue to be worn while not actively playing, for example on the sidelines or in the dugout. Face coverings must also continue to be worn at all times for indoor sports.”
MDH says, “Investigation of sports cases and outbreaks will continue, and in counties where rapid spread is detected additional measures may become necessary.”
Another way to stop the spreading of the variants? Get vaccinated if you’re able. Otherwise, continue to take the COVID-19 safety measures like wearing your mask, keeping your distance and washing your hands.
“The variants circulating now present added risk that we may see another surge in cases and we need everyone to do their part to prevent that from happening,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm.
Promising protection against COVID-19 variants
If you’re wondering what can be done about these variants, here’s some good news — the CDC says:
“So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently authorized vaccines recognize these variants. This is being closely investigated and more studies are underway.”
And more good news — “Anyone 16 years and over in all 50 states are now eligible for vaccination and soon, there likely will be an approval for vaccination of 12 years and up,” said Patsy. “The FDA is currently reviewing the Pfizer data in this age group for safety and efficacy (works to prevent severe COVID-19 and death from COVID).”
Schedule a COVID-19 vaccination
Children’s Minnesota strongly encourages everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible to stop the spread of COVID-19. Children’s Minnesota is currently vaccinating kids 12 years and older. To make a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, contact your your Children’s Minnesota primary care clinic.