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State Health Officials: U.K. COVID-19 variant ‘likely’ dominant strain in Iowa

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WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL)- According to state health officials, the B.1.1.7. or U.K. COVID-19 variant, which is believed to be "more transmissible," is now likely the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the state.

IDPH said there are cases of the variant at one long-term care facility in the state among residents who are either completely or partially vaccinated.

Last week, the CDC said that the U.K. variant is the most common COVID-19 variant circulating in the United States.

"It is likely that the B.1.1.7. variant is the most commonly circulating strain in our state," IDPH Spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said in an email Thursday. "This is not unexpected given national trends but is important information for overall surveillance, however the actions that individuals should take remain the same."

As of Thursday morning, the CDC reported 223 cases of the variant in the state. Ekstrand said the State Hygienic Laboratory is sequencing select samples across the state to look for the variant.

Dr. Jorge Salinas, Hospital Epidemiologist for University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said early research indicated the variant is more transmissible, but it is not clear whether it is deadlier.

Salinas said the currently available vaccines are effective at preventing the most severe symptoms of the variant.

"It appears that vaccines will retain their capacity to protect us from having severe disease and death," Salinas said. "Worst case scenario if you are vaccinated, even if you catch a variant, the vaccine, if it doesn't protect you against acquiring the infection, it will protect you against death or needing to go to the hospital, which is already a huge win for public health."

In recent weeks, the number of coronavirus cases has risen in 27 states across the Midwest and Northeast, particularly in Michigan and New England.

According to the latest numbers from Iowa's coronavirus dashboard, virus activity increases in the state, with infections and deaths continuing to rise.

There were 538 new, confirmed cases from 10 a.m. According to the state's dashboard, Wednesday to 10 a.m. Thursday, bringing the state’s total number of cases to 358,677.

Salinas said the state is not seeing a fourth wave like some neighboring states, but we could stop following public health measures.

"We may see similar behavior in the coming weeks, but we can prevent it," Salinas said. "If we wear masks, again, avoid large crowds and get vaccinated as soon as possible."

During a recent press conference, IDPH Interim Director Kelly Garcia said roughly a third of new cases in the past week had been people between 18 and 29 years of age.

While COVID fatigue and relaxing of measures are part of the explanation, Salinas said most of the older population, who were hit harder at the start of the pandemic, have been vaccinated and have some form of protection against the virus.

"The virus is like water, it tries to find its course its path, and it's going to start attacking populations who were not attacked before," Dr. Salinas said. "In this case, children, for example, younger individuals."

With younger people, the susceptible population, the average age of COVID hospitalizations is shifting to a younger demographic. Salinas said it could mean more transmission in schools.

"We did see clusters of transmission of COVID in schools early in the pandemic," he said. "Now, the only clusters that we may see will happen in that age group. It's not necessarily that the virus has mutated. It is just that that's the only population that is susceptible."

Asked about it during her press conference on Wednesday, Governor Reynolds, the state, is continuing to monitor, adding that the effects children are less than they are on the older population.

"We'll continue to watch especially as we see cases of the new variant in Iowa and across the country," she said. "Hospitalizations are remaining stable, and our long-term care facilities are remaining stable. We are just going to continue To encourage people to get the vaccine."

Research on vaccines for children is ongoing. Salinas said he expects to have vaccines available to children ages 12 to 16 in the coming months and children younger perhaps by 2022.

Researchers are continuing to study and learn about the virus and the variants. Salinas said a booster shot might be needed to fight an updated version of the virus in a year or two, but he does not think it is desperately needed.

Salinas stressed the importance of following mitigation measures to slow the spread of the UK variant and prevent future, possibly more dangerous variants from getting a foothold.

"We need to continue doing these same things wearing masks when in public, maintaining our distance, and probably the most powerful intervention is getting vaccinated," Dr. Salinas said. "The vaccines that are available in the United States are exceedingly effective against either the wild-type virus or any of the circulating variants in America. So get vaccinated, do your part. The sooner we can get to a large proportion of Iowans vaccinated, the lower the importance will be of any of these variants to our health."

On Thursday afternoon, IDPH confirmed a case of the Brazilian COVID-19 variant, formally known as SARS-CoV-2 P.1. It is the first known case in the state. The case was detected in Johnson County.

IDPH says public health officials are still learning about the characteristics of this strain and any potential impact it may have on vaccine effectiveness.

Ekstrand said that while the vaccines effectively prevent death and severe illness, they will not be 100% effective at preventing the virus from spreading.

"As the percentage of Iowans who are fully vaccinated continues to increase, we would expect there will also be a small percentage of infections among people who have been vaccinated but whose immune systems didn't develop a strong enough protective response," Ekstrand wrote.

Salinas is optimistic the current vaccines and basic public health measures can keep variant cases under control. He said the finish line is in sight for the Hawkeye state, but we can't give up early.

"Iowa has seen tremendous progress. We could lose some ground, partially because of the new variants, partially because people are fatigued," Salinas said. "If we remained strategic in our fight against the virus, in our relaxation of public health measures, by allowing some gatherings in between families were immunized by allowing gatherings outdoors or getting immunized as soon as possible, we can mitigate the potential risk of these new variants in America."

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Daniel Perreault


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