Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s advice column. We’re trying to make living through the pandemic a little easier, with expert-backed answers to your toughest coronavirus-related dilemmas. While we can’t and don’t offer medical advice—those questions should go to your doctor—we hope this column will help you sort through this stressful and confusing time. Got a question? Write to us at email@example.com.
Today, E.B. in New York asks:
My parents and in-laws will hopefully be vaccinated soon. My husband and toddler and I don’t expect to be vaccinated for quite some time. How should we think about whether it’s safe to spend time together in a mixed-vaccinated group? Could they get on a plane and fly to visit with us unmasked and indoors? Or is there enough risk that we should wait until we are all vaccinated (which may be a very long time especially with children in the mix)? Or split the difference and take some precautions?
To state the obvious, we are in a strange limbo state right now. The vaccines we’ve eagerly awaited for almost a year are here, and yet…nothing about our daily lives has really changed. Unfortunately, that’s going to be the case for a bit longer.
“The end is in sight,” says Dr. Colleen Kelley, a vaccine researcher and associate professor of infectious diseases at the Emory University School of Medicine in Georgia. “I just don’t know that it’s right now.”
Your loved ones getting vaccinated is unequivocally a step forward, Kelley says. It would certainly be safer to visit with your parents or in-laws after they’ve gotten both vaccine doses, but the safest plan is to wait until you and your husband are also vaccinated, she says.
The two coronavirus vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S.—those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna—are both extremely effective at preventing people from getting sick with COVID-19. That’s a huge benefit on its own, especially for people at high risk of severe illness, such as elderly adults and people with underlying medical conditions.
But the outstanding question is whether COVID-19 vaccines also stop people from getting asymptomatically infected with the virus. Early evidence suggestsboth shots offer at least some protection against asymptomatic infection, and many experts are optimistic about their chances of stopping transmission, but the data are still coming together.
If the shots turn out not to stop asymptomatic infections entirely, even your vaccinated parents could feasibly get your family sick if they picked something up while traveling to see you. Or, if you happened to be exposed to the virus, your parents could potentially carry it and pass it to others. And, while the authorized COVID-19 vaccines are very effective, there is always a tiny chance of them failing, leaving your parents at risk of illness.
These are all worst-case scenarios, of course. But given the uncertainty and the extent to which COVID-19 is still spreading in the U.S., Kelley says you should wait a little while longer to visit with your parents and in-laws. If that’s not possible, you should take the same precautions you’ve been hearing about for a year: quarantining beforehand, and ideally staying outdoors and masked when possible.
Here’s the good news, though. Once you and your husband are fully vaccinated (along with more of the general population), Kelley says you can feel much better about spending time with other vaccinated people indoors and unmasked—even if your toddler isn’t yet vaccinated.
As you suggest, it may be a while before kids younger than 16 are eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, since pharmaceutical companies haven’t yet finished testing their shots on younger children. But “if the toddler is the only one who’s not vaccinated, I would say that’s a pretty darn safe scenario,” Kelley says.
Luckily, young kids rarely get seriously ill with COVID-19, so once all the adults in the room are fully protected, Kelley says you can feel pretty comfortable with your parents or in-laws coming for a visit.
“We’re not going to get to a zero-risk situation,” Kelley says, “but we are going to get to places that are safer and safer.”
Anthony Fauci on Friday said that a lack of facts “likely did” cost lives over the last year in the nation’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In an appearance on CNN, the nation’s leading infectious diseases expert was directly asked whether a “lack of candor or facts” contributed to the number of lives lost during the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
“You know it very likely did,” Fauci said. “You know I don’t want that … to be a sound bite, but I think if you just look at that,you can see that when you’re starting to go down paths that are not based on any science at all, that is not helpful at all, and particularly when you’re in a situation of almost being in a crisis with the number of cases and hospitalizations and deaths that we have.”
“When you start talking about things that make no sense medically and no sense scientifically, that clearly is not helpful,” he continued.
President Biden on Thursday unveiled a new national coronavirus strategy that is, in part, aimed at “restoring trust in the American people.”
When asked why that was important, Fauci recognized that the past year of dealing with the pandemic had been filled with divisiveness.
“There’s no secret. We’ve had a lot of divisiveness, we’ve had facts that were very, very clear that were questioned. People were not trusting what health officials were saying, there was great divisiveness, masks became a political issue,” Fauci said.
“So what the president was saying right from the get-go was, ‘Let’s reset this. Let everybody get on the same page, trust each other, let the science speak.’”
Fauci, who was thrust into the national spotlight last year as part of former President Trump‘s coronavirus task force, often found himself at odds with the former president. Trump frequently downplayed the severity of the virus and clashed publicly with Fauci.
Speaking during a White House press briefing on Thursday, Fauci said it was “liberating” to be working in the Biden administration.
There have been more than 24,600,000 coronavirus infections in the U.S. since the pandemic began, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University. More than 410,000 people have died.
Although only 17 states are currently reporting data on the racial and ethnic breakdown of vaccine recipients, the early data indicate that there are significant disparities in who is getting vaccinated, with the share of Black and Latino people among vaccinees lower than their share of the total population in those states.
Alarmingly, in our recent conversations with health system executives,those same disparities seem to be present among healthcare workers employed by hospitals and health systems. Anecdotally, across a half-dozen health systems we’ve spoken with in the past week, most report that they’ve had about 70 percent of their workers agree to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, that number looks significantly different when broken down by race and ethnicity:on average, the uptake rate among White, Asian, and Pacific Islander workers has been closer to 90-95 percent, while among Black and Latino workers, it’s been closer to 30-40 percent. Bear in mind these are employees of health systems—in many cases they’re frontline caregivers—and given their work environments you might expect them to be less hesitant to get the vaccine.
That 30-40 percent uptake rate is very worrisome, in two ways:caregivers outside of hospital settings, especially home care and nursing home workers, likely include a larger number of workers hesitant to get vaccinated. And in the general population, among whom health literacy is presumably much lower than among healthcare workers,it’s precisely those populations who are at highest risk of COVID infection, hospitalization, and death. (A further complication: health systems made it easy for their employees to get the shot. With vaccines for the general population still scarce, at-risk populations will inevitably have the most difficult time getting signed up, even if they want the vaccine.)
If health systems are the canary in the coal mine for vaccine hesitancy rates, we’re in for a tough challenge in getting the most vulnerable populations vaccinated in the months to come.
If you, like us, wanted to reach into your television this week, tap former President Bill Clinton on the shoulder and remind him to pull up his mask while attending the inauguration, a piece by New York Times science writer James Gorman says you weren’t alone, posing the question: “Is mask-slipping the new manspreading?”
Just as every man on a plane or bus does not “manspread” into the middle seat, not every man’s mask slips off his nose. But whether you’re watching the inauguration or milling around the grocery store, it does seem that men are far more likely than women to be found with their mask dangling at their chins. Gorman notes it’s unlikely that the shape of men’s noses or their need for more air flow account for the mask-slipping.
And, examples seem to abound across the political spectrum (see also Chief Justice John Roberts at the inauguration), so it’s not a Republican or Democratic thing.It’s a man thing. Also in this category: the dude on every airline flight we’ve taken in the past year, often outfitted in a Titleist cap and Greg Norman polo, who sports a neck gaiter plucked from his ski bag instead of a real mask (despite the large body of highly publicized evidence noting the gaiters’ inferior performance).
His demeanor says, “I am paying lip service to this mask rule, but I don’t like it. Now I will pull down my gaiter and slowly nurse this whiskey and soda until we land.” Perhaps men are less afraid of catching COVID, or, as some surveys suggest, ignoring mask rules is seen as a sign of machismo. But regardless of the motivation, fellas, we need you to wear your masks.And pull them up over your nose.
When authorities came to Dr. Liu Chun’s hospital in the central Chinese city of Changsha with a request for 130 volunteers, it took just two hours for all slots to be filled. As a respiratory doctor specializing in ICU patients, Liu felt it was her duty to join the group of medical workers summoned 340 kilometers north, to Wuhan, where rumors of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness had been circulating for weeks. At first, Liu, 48, wasn’t terribly worried. Her husband and 12-year-old daughter were supportive; she didn’t bother telling her elderly parents of her plans.
But when she arrived in Wuhan on Feb. 8, 2020, she saw panic on the tear-streaked faces of her team members. One colleague was busy scribbling his will. Female staff had been instructed to cut their hair brutally short and men to shave it almost entirely.
“I was a little nervous,” she tells TIME.
Liu was charged with setting up a field hospital for COVID-19 patients outside Tongji Hospital in Wuhan. The city of 11 million had been sealed since Jan. 23 in an unprecedented lockdown that was to last 76 days. Officials ordered Liu to accept 50 patients within hours of her arrival, despite a dire shortage of medicine, PPE and ventilators.
It was only then that the severity of the disease became apparent. Liu would check on patients and return within an hour to find they had quietly passed.
“It really shocked me,” she says. “We began to call it the ‘silent killer.’”
She spent a lot of time calming and counseling terrified nurses. “I began to feel the burden of looking after everyone,” Liu recalls, while fearing for her own safety, even in a hazmat suit. Whenever a bead of sweat would drip from her cheek into her mouth, “I would get that salty taste and briefly fear that I’d been contaminated.”
Liu was among the first clinicians to confront COVID-19, and the panic and confusion she felt one year ago has sadly now burdened frontline workers around the globe. As Wuhan marks the first anniversary of its unprecedented lockdown, the city’s experiences are the cause of both hope and caution as the virus again takes hold in the country where it was first discovered.
China has enjoyed months of relatively low coronavirus figures, but it recorded 222 new coronavirus cases on Jan. 21, following 223 on Jan. 20 and 133 the day before that. The new more infectious U.K. strain has also been detected in at least four cities. This comes just before the Lunar New Year festivities, when migrant workers all over China expect to head home to celebrate the holiday with their families. The movement of holidaymakers, involving some 200 million people, is humanity’s biggest annual migration. This year, it could be a potentially catastrophic spreader of disease.
The government is handling the resurgence with trademark ruthlessness.More than 23 million people have been ordered to remain inside their homes in northern China to stymie new outbreaks—double the number confined in Wuhan when the pandemic first erupted. A temporary quarantine center capable of housing 4,000 suspected cases has been thrown up outside the city of Shijiazhuang, just under 300 kilometers southwest of the capital Beijing. Its residents—like those of two other major cities—are forbidden from venturing outside.
According to state media, some 20,000 residents of 12 villages near Shijiazhuang were rudely awoken by sirens early last week and bused to government-run quarantine centers. Business magazine Caixin reported that in one district of Shijiazhuang, an old man was tied to a tree after venturing out to buy cigarettes, prompting the suspension of local officials.
Millions of people in five Beijing neighborhoods have now been ordered not to leave the city and to report for testing after two cases of the new variant were discovered. Shanghai meanwhile reported three cases on Thursday and has mandated the testing of all hospital staff. Arrivals from domestic high and medium-risk areas of the country are also obliged to undergo 14 days quarantine.
Zhang Wenhong, head of the city’s COVID-19 response, told reporters“These cases reminded the public that the virus has never been away from us and epidemic prevention and control will become a new normal.”
China’s ongoing fight against COVID-19
The resurgence has rendered Wuhan’s anniversary especially sensitive for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Unhappy with accusations that officials bungled the handling of the outbreak’s early stages andsilenced whistle-blowers, the party has sought to rewrite the past year as a tale of decisive courage under strongman President Xi Jinping.
Already, there is a cavernous exhibition hall in Wuhan commemorating the lockdown, with holograms of medical staff, letters from front-line health workers and a replica of a mass quarantine site just like those now being hastily erected in Shijiazhuang. A towering photo of Xi takes pride of place by a timeline of the measures he is said to have personally taken to stem the virus’ spread. In fact, Xi was neither seen nor heard during the early stages the outbreak. Premier Li Keqiang was the public face of Beijing’s response, while on the ground the undisputed heroes were everyday people who kept shelves stocked and bellies full.
Qian Ranhao was in charge of a distribution hub for online retailer JD.com, just 3 miles from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital, where some of the first COVID-19 patients were treated. He was tasked with dispatching vital supplies of masks, drugs and disinfectant to the hospital each day, sleeping in the warehouse each evening to avoid taking the virus home to his heavily pregnant wife.
“She was nervous about me because I was on the street,” Qian tells TIME. “Even when I did return eventually home, we made sure to stay in different rooms.”
Qian’s son was born safely in August, but countless tales of tragedy have been expunged from the official account. The CCP’s already formidable talent for rewriting history has been honed even further under Xi, who has removed presidential term limits and fostered a cult of personality. In recent weeks, censors have scrubbed terms like “first anniversary” and “whistleblower” from Chinese social media, where paeans from corporate sponsors exalting Wuhan’s remarkable sacrifice and recovery are instead plentiful.
The GDP of Hubei province—of which Wuhan is the capital—fell 39.2% in the first quarter of 2020, but recovered strongly to post a mere 5% contraction over the cataclysmic year. Across China, official data suggests GDP grew 2.3% last year, though the economy has been extremely unbalanced. Speaking at a December forum promoting economic development along the Yangtze River, which runs through Wuhan, Wang Zhonglin, the city’s top official, entreated the residents not to “slow down efforts to work toward becoming an international metropolis.”
That the message is being painstakingly curated and controlled is underscored by last month’s sentencing to four years in prison of Zhang Zhan, 37, a citizen journalist who had chronicled Wuhan’s lockdown. Scientists are also under strict orders not to report anything that may corroborate the belief that the virus originated inside China. A WHO team belatedly arrived in Wuhan last week to investigate the source of the coronavirus, but it’s uncertain how much freedom they will have to visit places they deem of interest following their two weeks quarantine. Two of the party were denied entry after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies.
The government has meanwhile unveiled sweeping plans to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February, and has so far managed to inoculate 10 million. State employees have been expressly forbidden from traveling over the holiday, and officials have urged everyone else to avoid it if possible. That’s a tough ask for the many millions of casual workers for whom the holiday is their only opportunity each year to reunite with loved ones.
Some 1.7 billion trips are expected during the festival, according to China’s Transport Ministry. That represents a 40% drop on 2019 figures, and a new rule requires travelers to present a negative nucleic acid test upon arrival at their hometowns. Nevertheless, one year after the start of the Wuhan lockdown, officials must be nervous.
Gang Fang, assistant professor of biology at NYU Shanghai, says the potential for seeding outbreaks is very real and officials are well aware of the stakes.
“If officials don’t control cases in their local area they will lose their job and political career,” he tells TIME. “Controlling the virus is their most important responsibility right now.”
Over the last year, COVID-19 has taught us painful lessons about the pitfalls of wishful thinking. Early in the pandemic, some people speculated that the virus would slow down over as the weather got warmer over the summer months; instead, the U.S. experienced a deadly wave of new cases. A few months ago, I hoped that here in Southern California, it would be easier for people to avoid spreading the virus than in colder parts of the country, because people can socially distance outdoors more easily year-round. Instead, our outbreak is now among the world’s deadliest—on Monday, California became the first state to report more than 3 million cases of the virus. Here in Los Angeles County, so many people are dying that officials temporarily lifted air quality regulations to permit more cremations, the Los Angeles Times reports.
California’s struggles to contain COVID-19 can at least partly be attributed to pandemic fatigue—after nearly a year of wearing masks and avoiding contact with others, people’s resolve is simply wearing thin. However, while we may feel done with the virus, it isn’t done with us—between 70 and nearly 120 people per 100,000 have died of COVID-19 in California every day in the last week, while more than 3,200 have died each day nationwide; the U.S. just today passed the grim milestone of 400,000 COVID-19 deaths.
If California can’t get its outbreak under control, more pain could lie ahead. Officials have discovered that new variants of the virus are spreading in the Golden State, including a more transmissible strain first identified in the U.K., where caseloads are skyrocketing and hospitals are overwhelmed. What’s happening here in California could be a bellwether for the rest of the country, as the virus continues its spread mostly unchecked across the country and world.
Regardless of which variant is spreading, experts say the defensive measures remain the same: we need to keep wearing our masks (new research shows just how effective they are), maintaining physical distance from others, and spend as much time as possible at home. It’s natural to want to give up—or even bend just a little—and spend time with friends and family we haven’t seen in ages, or do other risky things. That temptation is all the more real now that multiple highly effective vaccines are here, and the end of the pandemic seems within sight. But the vaccination process has gone frustratingly slowly so far, and not enough of us have the necessary protection to let our collective guard down, especially given the presence of at least one highly transmissible mutation.
With those alarming new variants spreading across the globe, it’s probably time to recalibrate our behavior in favor of safety—until more people are inoculated, it’s vital for us to reduce spread through other proven means. In the coming weeks, Californians and Americans elsewhere must buckle down, with their eyes on the final mission: ensuring that as many people as possible survive to see the end of the pandemic.
While 28.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped to various U.S. states as of this morning, only about 10.6 million doses have been administered thus far, according to TIME’s vaccine tracker—representing 3.2% of the overall U.S. population.
India launched its nationwide coronavirus vaccine rollout on Saturday, starting with healthcare workers, according to the New York Times.Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that the 1.3 billion-person country aims to vaccinate 300 million healthcare and other front line workers by July. More than 10.5 million people have been infected in India, and more than 152,500 people have died.
Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked Pfizer whether his state could purchase vaccines directly from the pharmaceutical company, thus bypassing the federal government. But Dr. Celine Gounder, who’s advising President-elect Joe Biden on the pandemic, said that such a strategy could create problems. “I think we’ve already had too much of a patchwork response across the states,” Grounder said in an interview with CNBC today; she also argued that Cuomo’s idea could create a bidding war among states for vaccines.
TODAY’S CORONAVIRUS OUTLOOK
The Global Situation
More than 95.5 million people around the world had been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of 3 p.m. E.T. today, and more than 2 million people have died. On Jan. 18, there were 514,013 new cases and 9,276 new deaths confirmed globally.
Here’s how the world as a whole is currently trending:
Here’s where daily cases have risen or fallen over the last 14 days, shown in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents:
And here is every country with over 1.5 million confirmed cases:
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, is pushing back on findings from an independent World Health Organization report that was critical of Beijing’s early response to the COVID-19 outbreak. China’s early lockdowns, Chunying said, helped reduce deaths and infections, Al Jazeera reports. Still, China has been criticized for failing to adequately disclose the scope and nature of the outbreak when it first began.
German leaders have agreed to extend a lockdown for businesses and schools until Feb. 14 and to require medical masks on public transportation,Reuters reports. While Germany is now reporting fewer than half as many new cases as it was a month ago, experts have raised concerns about new coronavirus variants that are thought to be more contagious, some of which have been detected in the country.
The Situation in the U.S.
The U.S. had recorded more than 24 million coronavirus cases as of 3 p.m. E.T. today. More than 400,000 people have died. On Jan. 18, there were 141,999 new cases and 2,422 new deaths confirmed in the U.S.
Here’s how the country as a whole is currently trending:
And here’s where daily cases have risen or fallen over the last 14 days, shown in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents.
President-elect Joe Biden plans to continue a travel ban on non-U.S. citizens from European countries and Brazil, reversing outgoing President Donald Trump’s order to end the ban on Jan. 26, six days into Biden’s presidency. Jennifer Psaki, Biden’s incoming press secretary, tweeted that the Biden administration plans “to strengthen public health measures around international travel.” A week ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered that almost all airline passengers must have a negative coronavirus test or proof of recovery before entering the U.S.
The United States on Tuesday passed 400,000 deaths from COVID-19, a stunning total that is only climbing as the crisis deepens.
The country is now averaging more than 3,000 coronavirus deaths every day, according to Johns Hopkins University data, more than the number of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and the daily death toll has been rising. The effects of a surge in gatherings and travel over the holidays are now coming into focus.
The grim milestone of 400,000 deaths came on the last full day in office for President Trump, who has long rejected criticism of his handling of the pandemic.
The situation threatens to get even worse as a new, more contagious variant of the virus becomes more prevalent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned last week that one of the new variants, first discovered in the United Kingdom, could be the predominant strain in the U.S. by March.
Vaccines offer hope, but it is crucial for the inoculation campaign to progress as quickly as possible to get as many people protected before the new variant takes greater hold.
The U.S. vaccination campaign has started slowly, though there are signs it is beginning to pick up some speed. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged a more aggressive federal role in the vaccination effort, including using the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up more vaccination sites.
In the short term, however, the country is in for a bleak period.
“I think we still have some dark weeks ahead,” she said.
The country passed 300,000 deaths in mid-December.
At the end of March, as the crisis was beginning, Trump said that if deaths are limited to between 100,000 and 200,000 “we all, together, have done a very good job.” The country has long ago exceeded those numbers.
The U.S. has by far the most COVID-19 deaths of any country in the world. Brazil follows with around 210,000, and India and Mexico are around 150,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
More than 124,000 people are in the hospital with coronavirus in the U.S., according to the COVID Tracking Project, though the number is starting to decline somewhat from a peak of over 130,000 about a week ago.
The spread of the more contagious variant, however, threatens to send that number spiking again.
Health officials stress they haven’t determined whether the variant might be more contagious or resistant to vaccines.
A coronavirus variant first identified in Denmark has ripped through Northern California — including outbreaks at nursing homes, jails and a hospital in the San Jose area — prompting state and local officials to investigate whether it may be more transmissible.
California officials disclosed the rise of the variant Sunday night after genetic monitoring linked it to a fast-growing share of new cases, as well as to the outbreaks in Santa Clara county, which includes San Jose.
This rising variant is distinct from the highly contagious mutation discovered by Britain, which has also been found in California, and which federal health officials projectcould become the dominant strain in the United States by March based on its proven higher transmissibility.
Experts stress that they need to look more closely at the circumstances of the Northern California outbreaks, as well as at the latest variant — this one, known as L452R — before declaring it more contagious or more dangerous than the virus already broadly circulating.
The L452R variant was first detected in northern Europe in March and has since been confirmed in more than a dozen states, including California in May. The discovery did not garner much attention at the time because all viruses change constantly as they replicate. But public health authorities deem some variants to be “of concern” if evidence suggests they might be more contagious, potentially deadlier or resistant to vaccines.
California publicized the latest variant at a late Sunday news conference after researchers identified it in about 25 percent of samples collected between Dec. 14 and Jan. 3, a surge from 3.8 percent of samples collected in the preceding three-week period.
“That is suggestive, and it’s a little worrisome,” Charles Chiu, a virologist at the University of California at San Francisco said at the briefing. But Chiu stressed it was too early to conclude the variant is more infectious because scientists do not know whether their sampling was representative or whether the variant’s increase might be due to random chance, or even a series of superspreader events.
Officials urged people to follow public health guidelines to minimize the risk of contracting the variant as new daily cases in the hard-hit state plateau at more than 38,000, while deaths average more than 515 daily.
“It’s too soon to know if this variant will spread more rapidly than others,” said Erica Pan, California’s state epidemiologist, “but it certainly reinforces the need for all Californians to wear masks and reduce mixing with people outside their immediate households to help slow the spread of the virus.”
Genetic sequencing of viruses is still limited in the United States, preventing health officials from having a real-time picture of all the strains of coronavirus spreading across the country and their prevalence.
California’s preliminary data is based on fewer than 400 samples that overwhelmingly came from the state’s north. Southern California is the heaviest hit part of the state, with deaths in Los Angeles County reaching one every seven minutes and ICU beds and oxygen running out, although hospitalizations have begun to plateau. Environmental regulators on Sunday temporarily lifted limits on cremations because of a backlog in Los Angeles County.
The L452R strain in California raised alarms because it is associated with several large outbreaks in Santa Clara County, including one at a hospital that infected at least 90 people and killed one staff member. Officials at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center said a staff member wearing an inflatable Christmas tree costume to spread holiday cheer likely spread coronavirus-laden droplets instead.
Sara Cody, Santa Clara’s top public health official, described that episode as a “very unusual outbreak with a lot of illnesses, and it seemed to spread quite fast.” The county is working with state health officials and the CDC to investigate what happened, she said.
Cody cautioned that the outbreak could have been driven by factors unrelated to the variant, such as changes in ventilation or personal protective equipment practices at the hospital.
“The takeaway is not that we need to start worrying about this,” Cody said Sunday. “The takeaway is, this is a variant that’s becoming more prevalent, and we need to lean in and understand more about it.”
County officials on Monday disclosed other places where the variant had been found as a result of aggressive genetic sequencing, “including cases associated with the Kaiser outbreak, skilled nursing facility outbreaks, cases in jails and shelters, and specimens from testing sites in the community,” according to a statement. “This suggests that the variant is now relatively common in our community.”
Chiu, the virologist who conducted the genetic sequencing, said a deeper investigation must be done to determine if the strain is more transmissible like the one found in the United Kingdom.
He also raised concerns that a mutation associated with the variant might make it more resistant to vaccines because it occurs in a critical part of the spike protein that is targeted by the vaccines,but he added that the virus must be grown in a lab and tested more fully before any conclusions can be drawn.
“Mutations happen all the time,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Some of them take off and the great majority of them don’t. The main reason why we are paying attention to this is because this mutation has previously been noted as being of particular concern in terms of diminishing the efficacy of the immune response.”
Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and global health at Emory University, said the rising prevalence of the variant shows the urgent need for more genetic sequencing in the United States and for greater compliance with public health measures such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds.
“We really need to hunker down because if you are really concerned about mutations, stop transmission,” del Rio said. “The more mutations you see, the more uncontrolled transmission you will see.”
After starting the new year with record-high cases, deaths and hospitalizations, the United States is starting to see signs of slowing spread despite fears of a post-holiday surge that would continue through January. The seven-day average of new infections has slowed since last Tuesday, and hospitalizations have started to plateau, according to Washington Post tracking.
Still, Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, warned that the advent of more transmissible variants could reverse that progress.
“As current epidemic surge peaks, we may see 3-4 weeks of declines in new cases but then new variant will take over,” Gottlieb tweeted Sunday, referring to the British variant. “It’ll double in prevalence about every week. It’ll change the game and could mean we have persistent high infection through spring until we vaccinate enough people.”