As vaccines become available to everyone in North Carolina, it can feel like there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But, with the growing presence of COVID-19 variants, doctors warn this is not the time to become complacent.
The first case of a COVID-19 variant in North Carolina was found in Mecklenburg County on January 29. That variant, B.1.1.7, was initially detected in the U.K. and is now one of five variants in the U.S. identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These variants seem to spread more quickly than others, which could lead to additional cases of COVID-19.
“The variants may not cause a more severe illness, and that is good news,” says Dr. Ryan Shelton, an internal medicine specialist at Tryon SouthPark. “However, COVID-19 is an already easily spread illness so a more contagious variant is concerning. When you’re doing basic things like coughing, talking, sneezing and singing and you have a higher amount of virus, then there is more to spread.”
More sick people also have an impact on our healthcare system.
“That downstream effect means more strain on frontline workers and our hospitals with the increased potential need for care,” Dr. Shelton says.
Mutations Are Not a Surprise
All viruses evolve and mutate. This is typical virus behavior. New variants can emerge and disappear or emerge and become prevalent. These mutations most often impact things like transmission, making a virus more or less contagious, like the COVID-19 variants we’re currently seeing. Mutations can also make viruses cause more or less severe illness.
These changes in a virus happen when it has the chance to replicate. So when a virus is being actively transmitted in a population like it is with COVID-19, opportunities for mutations only increase.
Variant Impacts on the COVID-19 Vaccine
Physicians, health officials, scientists and researchers are still working to understand the full impact of COVID-19 variants on the vaccines we currently have available. Studies show that the vaccines now being distributed help the recipients develop antibodies that recognize these variants but more research is needed. New flu vaccines are available every year to adapt to mutations and a similar process could be needed for COVID-19. Research into this is now underway.
Because mutations happen most rapidly when viruses are being transmitted, curbing the spread of COVID-19 by getting more people vaccinated quickly while continuing due diligence with masking and distancing is incredibly important in preventing additional variants.
“If the virus eventually outsmarts our current vaccines before we can get enough people vaccinated, then that’s going to be a real challenge,” says Dr. Shelton. “What a blessing that we have such a powerful weapon to fight this illness but we must use it.”
Time to Double Down on Safety
After over a year of following COVID-19 precautions, Dr. Shelton recognized that many are feeling “COVID fatigue.” But with new variants emerging that could eventually impact the efficacy of current vaccines, this is not the time to stop following precautions.
“We really need to dial up our due diligence,” says. Dr. Shelton. “It’s time to double down on the basics, including mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.”
The CDC has released new guidance for those who have had the vaccine, so it’s important to know what those mean for you. Continue to stay up-to-date on additional COVID-19 information and research, and don’t forget to see your trusted primary care physician for your annual well-visit to address other healthcare concerns.