We are nearing 20 million COVID-19 cases in the US, with almost 350,000 deaths. The predictions are not easing up, with 567,000 deaths predicted by April 1st, 2021. Along with those sobering numbers, we hear word of a more infectious strain arriving and already spreading. Not a good way to end a tough year, or begin a new one.
Understanding the mutations that have occurred in the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be daunting. Fortunately, we have some good translators. One of them is Travis Bedford, a scientist here in Seattle at Fred Hutch Research Center who has a virus tracking project called Nextstrain, that monitors viruses and their mutations. The Seattle Times published an excellent Q&A with him that answers many of our questions. He says that this new viral strain is likely spreading in the US. Now found in California as well as Colorado. RNA viruses like the coronavirus are known to mutate rapidly, due to the RNA making mistakes when it codes itself. These new mutations may affect the virus’ transmission- either hurting or helping. In this case, it is helping speed up transmission, although no evidence yet that infected people get sicker. Infected people have higher viral loads, so they can transmit it to others more easily. The new strain may also decrease effectiveness of the present vaccines by a little bit. They expect the vaccines to work for now, although the more mutations that occur in the future may mean we need to get updated booster shots in the future, just like we need to do with the flu vaccine. Tough news to hear as holiday travel has increased despite warnings.
Having a new, more infectious strain, is not what we need right now. But we do know what to do to avoid catching it. That’s right: social distancing and mask wearing. Get your vaccine as soon as you can. Avoid people who traveled over the holidays, because they may be vectors of the new strain. Limit contact with more than your pod, if possible.
The vaccine roll out is not as fast as we had hoped, although the new administration is developing plans to speed up distribution. Unfortunately, the already cash-strapped states have not had enough money to help them distribute the doses they are receiving. Hopefully the money designated in the new relief bill that was finally signed can get distributed to help states get people vaccinated.
Getting vaccinated helps but it takes at least a couple of weeks to develop immunity and there is still not enough data to prove that the vaccine prevents transmission. This means mask wearing will still be important. But it might make it easier for someone to feel safer going shopping or to a doctor’s appointment after the vaccine, or being around their elderly parents if everyone is vaccinated. The vaccine is good but doesn’t protect a 100% so vigilance is still good. We are so close.
Wash your hands, cover your nose, keep safe six, and stay sensible.
And finally, my caveat is that this is my experience and my opinions, which are subject to change as more information is available, and not related to the organization I work for. Thanks for reading.