Will Coronavirus Variants Knock Us Back to Square One?
The optimist says the U.S. is experiencing only one-third as many new daily cases of the coronavirus as it was two months ago.
The pessimist says the opening of businesses, lifting of restrictions and new virus variants will cause another surge.
The realist says 60,000 new cases per day in America are still far too many. A vast majority of people are taking precautions. Including mask wearing, social distancing and frequent hand washing. Millions are getting vaccinated.
But the more-contagious virus variants are causing considerable concern. More on these variants in a moment.
Numbers Go Down, Restrictions Lift, Numbers Go Up
We seem to be in a vicious circle. Every time the numbers go down, society opens up more and restrictions are lifted. And then numbers go up again.
National, state and local officials are faced with the same old problem. They’re trying to balance the safety of individuals with the need for businesses to operate. And people to keep their jobs.
The pandemic has been around for more than a year now. But scientists are still learning new things about the coronavirus. In response, health officials are modifying guidelines.
Here are two examples. The CDC now says vaccinated Americans may gather indoors in small groups without precautions. But they should still wear facemasks in public. And vaccinated grandparents can visit with healthy, unvaccinated grandchildren.
Mask Mandates Dwindling
New case numbers are down from their peak. And about 2 million people are being vaccinated daily. So, a number of states lifted their mask mandates recently. They include Wyoming, Texas, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana and North Dakota.
Eleven other states never had mask mandates. They are Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Idaho. Plus Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. And South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee.
Some believe this is a dangerous precedent. Scientists don’t yet understand whether or how immunized people can transmit the virus. Or how long vaccine protection might last.
And here’s perhaps the biggest question of all. Will vaccines formulated for the “original” coronavirus be effective against variants?
Identifying the Variants
So, what are these variants and why are they so troublesome? Currently there are five coronavirus variants causing the most concern.
One is B.1.351, believed to have originated in South Africa. Another is B.1.1.7, also called the UK variant. A third is P.1, first identified in Brazil. The fourth is L452R, first seen in California. The fifth, discovered in New York City, is B.1.526.
The first two cases of the B.1.351 variant in the U.S. were identified in South Carolina. They were found in different parts of the state. Earlier, Minnesota identified the first U.S. case of the P.1 variant.
Back in December, the UK variant was first seen in America. It’s been confirmed in hundreds of cases in a majority of the states. UK experts report this variant spreads more easily.
Will a Variant Become Dominant?
Due to their rapid spread, one of the variants could become the dominant strain in the U.S. very soon. That’s according to Dr. Anthony Fauci. He’s director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“When you have a virus that has the ability to transmit more efficiently than the wild type in the community… it will become more dominant than the wild type,” he said.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky is the CDC director. “We know viruses mutate,” she said. “And they tend to mutate in ways that are advantageous to the virus. We expected this.
“And this is why I feel compelled to underscore the need for each of us to remain steadfast. (And take) all the appropriate steps to protect ourselves and our communities.”
85,000 More Deaths?
If variants spread rapidly, they could add 85,000 American deaths to the projected death toll by May. That’s according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). It’s based at the University of Washington.
Randy Slavitt is the White House Senior Advisor for COVID Response. Here’s what he said. “Nothing about this news says we can’t defeat this thing. It just means we need more tools. And we need to be more united in doing it.
“We’re going to have to stay one step ahead of these mutations. We’re going to need processes to keep developing tests, therapies and vaccines.”
The IHME says deaths will stay lower, despite the spread of variants. But only if Americans take precautions. Like wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Plus frequently washing hands and staying home more.
Ugly Worst-Case Scenario
What is the worst-case scenario for coronavirus variants? It’s not pretty. British scientists say this. It’s likely the B.1.1.7 variant “is associated with an increased risk of hospitalization and death.”
Here’s what worries scientists and healthcare workers most. A variant could mutate to a point where it causes more severe disease. Or bypasses the ability of tests to detect it. Or evades the protection provided by vaccination.
“The variants that have been identified recently seem to spread more easily,” Walensky said. “They’re more transmissible. Which can lead to increased numbers of cases. And increased stress on our already overtaxed system.”
Fauci says the virus will continue to mutate. So, vaccine manufacturers must be “nimble to be able to adjust readily” to reformatting the vaccines. One option is for vaccine manufacturers to create booster shots to improve protection against variants.
Give Your Immune System a Boost
Regardless of whether you get a coronavirus vaccine, it’s important to keep your immune system strong.
The immune system is a complex mixture of things. Like hormones, proteins and cells designed to battle illnesses. It naturally weakens as we age.
But we can give our immune systems a boost with healthy life choices. Including eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.