New, More Dangerous Strains of COVID Circulating in Arizona Covid-19
New, more dangerous variants of the COVID virus have arrived in Arizona, prompting doctors to redouble their efforts to get people vaccinated – and continue to wear masks in public.
The state health department announced this week the discovery of three cases of the P.1 variant that have plagued Brazil, in addition to at least 35 cases caused by variant B.1.1.7, first discovered in England. The US is not consistently looking for the new variants.
Both variants spread 50% to 70% more easily than the normal strain. According to the latest research results, the P.1 variant also appears to be somewhat more deadly and better to evade the protection of the currently approved vaccines.
The worrying news comes as Arizona races to vaccinate its population. About 22% of the population had at least one shot, but only 15% of them were fully vaccinated with either one of Johnson & Johnson’s two-shot vaccines or one-shot vaccine.
In addition, states have increasingly relaxed the requirements for masking and social distancing, as has the spread of the new strains accelerating. Arizona governor Doug Ducey ordered most schools to resume face-to-face tuition this week, although high schools in areas where the virus is widespread may remain on distance learning mode for the time being. The governor also relaxed capacity limits for high-risk businesses such as restaurants, gyms and bars.
Fortunately, hospital stays, new cases, and deaths have declined rapidly in the past month – both nationally and in Arizona. Arizona has reported about 900 cases per day for the past week, a 30% decrease from two weeks ago.
Gila County has done particularly well with an infection rate of 10 per 100,000 last week, just below the state rate of 12 per 100,000. Apache County has reported an infection rate of 14 per 100,000 and Navajo County 12 per 100,000. Pinal County has the highest infection rate in the state at 25 per 100,000.
Unfortunately, the rapid decline in cases has resulted in many people – and states – loosening protection.
The federal centers for disease control have warned people to continue practicing social distancing and wearing masks in public until 70% to 90% of the population is either vaccinated or recovered from infection.
The CDC says that people who have been fully vaccinated can get together in small groups for the time being without being at high risk of infection. Even people who have been shot are still encouraged to wear masks in public or in larger groups. It is unclear if someone who has been vaccinated and therefore has no symptoms can still have a low level infection that they can pass on to someone who is not vaccinated.
Epidemiologists say the proliferation of the new variants suggests the nation must achieve nearly 90% protection from vaccination and recovery from infection before we receive “herd immunity” protection. Even if someone is infected, they are unlikely to spread the virus to others and the pandemic should die out.
Unfortunately, about 30% of the public say they don’t believe they will be vaccinated even if the shots become widely available. That includes 40% of Republicans – a measure of how politically polarized the fight against the virus has become.
Gila County has offered vaccination appointments to anyone over the age of 15. Most counties and states still limit appointments to high-risk groups and people over the age of 55.
Apache and Navajo counties are still limiting their appointments to high-risk groups and those over 60.
Gila County is still at “high risk” despite a two-week decline in hospital admissions of 40% and a 46% decrease in new cases. The county has reported only three deaths in the past two weeks, with an average of 5% of tests returning positive.
Apache County is considered “very high risk” despite a two-week 9% decrease in new cases of 9% and a 56% decrease in hospital stays. The county has reported 19 new deaths in the past two weeks, with 3% of tests returning positive.
Navajo County is also at “very high risk” despite the 45% decrease in cases and the 62% decrease in hospital stays in the past two weeks. The county has reported 21 new deaths in the past two weeks, with 5% of tests returning positive.
The virus has developed at a surprising rate in the past year, partly because so many people have been infected. As the total number of infections with the vaccine decreases, the virus will mutate less quickly and will find it harder to evade the protection of existing vaccines. Some evidence suggests that vaccines that are 95% effective against infection by the current, dominant strain may only be 50% effective against the P.1 strain from Brazil or a similar South African strain. The current vaccine could reduce the severity of the diseases caused by both infections, but that is still uncertain.
Even if the US achieves its goal of vaccinating more than 70% of the population sometime this summer, much of the rest of the world has barely started mass vaccination. This means the virus will be widespread in Africa, South America and elsewhere well into next year. This means that new, more dangerous strains that current vaccines cannot fully control remain a pervasive threat.
A study published in Nature found that the Novavax vaccine provided 90% protection in a clinical trial in England, but only 50% in South Africa, where most cases are caused by the B.1.351 strain. The American-made vaccine has not yet been approved for use in the United States. Studies have shown that strains that spread more easily can quickly become the dominant strain once they gain a foothold.
The finding increases the possibility that the COVID virus will become like the flu virus, which requires a reformulated shot against the dominant tribe every year.
Recent laboratory studies have confirmed some of researchers’ worst fears about the new variants, according to a summary of the studies on the Science Daily website.
Columbia University researchers tested the effectiveness of antibodies produced by humans when Moderna and Pfizer were shot against different strains of the virus. The test showed that the antibodies produced by the shots were slightly less effective against the English strain, but were much less effective against the South African strains, which are very similar to the Brazilian P.1 strain. The results also suggest that highly effective monoclonal antibody treatments given at the beginning of an infection may not work nearly as well on some of the new variants.
Other studies have reported similar results.
Vaccines produce a variety of different antibodies against the viral proteins. The Columbia study tested the effectiveness of 18 different antibodies produced by humans after vaccination. Some of these antibodies were unable to neutralize the South African virus’ spike protein. Most were found to be a little less effective. So the vaccines still offer protection against the tribes from Brazil or South Africa – albeit at a greatly reduced level. The vaccines seem to offer good protection against the English tribe.
All of this underscores the need to slow the spread of the virus as quickly as possible – both in the US and around the world.
Fortunately, the US mass vaccination program continues to pick up pace. Billions of additional funds for testing and vaccinations are included in the American Rescue Act’s latest $ 1.9 package.
More than 70 million Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine to date, of which 38 million are fully vaccinated. That comes from national tracking data released by the CDC on Monday. The providers currently deliver about 2.4 million doses a day, with a record 4.6 million recordings on Saturdays. The federal government had released 136 million cans to the federal states on Monday. Arizona’s vaccination rate is barely above the national average.
At the current rate, 50% of Americans will have their shots by May 15th and 90% by August 9th. According to epidemiologists, this is the level necessary to achieve herd immunity despite the spread of the new variants.
However, if 30% of the population refuse to get a shot and the new variants keep spreading, the virus will likely continue to circulate in lower amounts indefinitely.
To date, Gila County has reported 6,456 cases and 217 deaths (393 / 100,000).