New COVID-19 strains seep into Virginia as cases decline

Christina Amano Dolan, Contributing Writer

Two new rapidly spreading strains of COVID-19 have been detected in Virginia. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 are beginning to drop since cases peaked in Virginia on Jan. 8, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The VDH announced another confirmed case of the new U.K. variant in a release on Feb. 3. Virginia has identified a total of four cases of the variant in its northern and northwest regions, according to the report. 

Gov. Ralph Northam announced in a briefing on Friday that another variant from South Africa has been detected for the first time in Virginia. 

“In Israel, for example, the new variants account for more than 80% of the cases in a country that is about the same size of Virginia,” Northam said. “These variants make it even more urgent to get as many people vaccinated as we can, as quickly and as equitably as possible.” 

The U.K. variant, B.1.1.7, was first detected in the U.K. in December, spreading to more than 75 countries as of Monday, according to PANGO lineages. A total of 932 cases of the U.K. variant have been reported in the U.S., though it is predicted that a larger number of cases are circulating, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other variants were detected in the U.S. in late January. Nine cases have been reported with the South African variant B.1.351, and shares similar mutations with the U.K. variant. Another variant first detected in Brazil called P.1 has been reported three times in the U.S.

Although new developments of these variants are quickly emerging, scientists have yet to determine how widely they have spread, if they cause milder or more severe disease, and how they may respond to existing treatments.

“Just yesterday, I was working in the ER, and every bed was filled with COVID patients,” said Bon Secours Memorial College nursing student Maggie Rombach. “Not only do hospitals not have enough room but they have been trying to treat people in waiting rooms, which poses other issues as well.”

The CDC and public health departments have speculated that the U.K. and South African variants spread more easily and rapidly than other circulating variants through direct person-to-person contact. Multiple public health departments are conducting studies to determine if they may cause a higher risk of death.

The Virginia Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services continues to track these variants in the commonwealth through laboratory analysis of virus specimens. 

The effects of the new variants on currently authorized vaccines also remain unknown. Though CDC studies have suggested that the antibodies created by these vaccines will protect people against these variants, further analysis is needed. 

Bon Secours Memorial College nursing student Maggie Rombach remains skeptical about the effectiveness of the vaccine. She said she believes the COVID-19 pandemic is far from being over. 

“There is no research stating whether or not these new vaccinations can protect you from all strains of the coronavirus,” Rombach said. “We just have not had enough time to understand how it can affect people in the long run or if it can protect people from other variants of the disease.”

Rombach said she is scared for the new variants emerging and their rapid spreading. From working her clinicals at multiple local emergency rooms, specifically in COVID-19 units, she has seen that the current number of cases is already overwhelming for healthcare workers. 

“Just yesterday, I was working in the ER, and every bed was filled with COVID patients,” Rombach said. “Not only do hospitals not have enough room but they have been trying to treat people in waiting rooms, which poses other issues as well.”

Despite a spike in cases following the holidays, a VDH report indicates that total cases in Virginia have recently experienced a sharp decline. The department reported 2,811 probable and confirmed cases on Feb. 2, down from the department’s Jan. 8 count of 5,208 cases.

Some VCU students worry that cases will worsen despite their recent decline, as there remains a lot of uncertainty surrounding the variants. 

“They definitely make me nervous because they’re so unknown and I don’t know if the vaccine protects against it, or if it will affect people who have already had COVID and have antibodies,” said Shayna Wolin, a junior majoring in criminal justice and sociology. 

Wolin said she will continue to follow social distancing guidelines and hopes to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Senior pre-nursing major Elizabeth Gilmer said she fears cases will worsen as the virus continues to mutate. Although she is worried about the variants reaching campus, she feels safe in a virtual learning environment.

“I do feel safe as a VCU student,” Gilmer said. “When I start nursing school, I will be more concerned, but there’s really nothing VCU can do that they aren’t already doing right now.”

Tammie Smith, a VDH spokesperson, said in an email that Virginians should continue to practice current safety protocols as new variants emerge. 

Current protocols include wearing a face mask, hand-washing, remaining six feet away from others, avoiding large gatherings, staying home if infected by or exposed to the virus, and getting vaccinated when the opportunity arises.

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