Three of the five COVID-19 “variants of concern” identified worldwide have been found in the Rappahannock Area Health District.
They’ve caused 31 infections and one hospitalization, according to new data from the Virginia Department of Health. Local results are similar to statewide trends, which show the strain that originated in the United Kingdom has become the predominant variant in Virginia.
Of the state’s 965 infections caused by variants, 789 were from the United Kingdom type; 27 of the 31 cases in the local health district have been traced to that mutation. In the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, which includes Culpeper, Fauquier and Orange counties, 14 of 19 cases from variants were attributed to the U.K. strain.
Others found locally include the strain from South Africa and two types of California variants.
In the movies, mutants make for interesting superheroes when claws pop out of their hands or laser-like blasts shoot from their eyes, but it’s a different story when the COVID-19 virus makes changes in its DNA sequencing. These variants can result in disease super-spreaders.
They might be transmitted more easily, cause more severe illness, be harder to detect and be more difficult to treat, according to the Virginia Department of Health. They also may not be covered by vaccines or the natural immunity a person gets after having COVID-19 because that protection was developed against the original strain of the disease.
That’s why state and national health officials have encouraged people to get inoculated as soon as it’s their turn.
“We’re in a race to get everyone vaccinated before we run up against a variant that’s either more resistant or deadlier,” Dr. Norm Oliver, the state’s health commissioner, said last month.
To date, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has identified five variants of concern worldwide related to COVID-19, and all have been discovered in Virginia. The least common is the Brazilian variety, which has resulted in five cases statewide. Researchers in Canada were concerned most about it earlier this month because it had mutated in ways that not only enabled it to spread faster but also to reinfect people who’d already had the original virus.
Currently, Virginia puts about 15 percent of positive virus tests through a complicated process called whole-genome sequencing to identify variants, Dr. Danny Avula, Virginia’s vaccine coordinator, said recently. He hoped the state soon expands the testing so, “We’ll have more clarity about what we’re seeing.”
There are probably more cases caused locally by variants. RAHD officials believe their numbers are underreported, just as COVID-19 cases are in general.
When the local health district’s positivity rate, which measures the number of positive virus tests among all those taken, began to rise earlier this month, health officials suggested there may be several factors—including that “the variants are here and likely driving a bit of this increase,” said Mary Chamberlin, the district’s public relations specialist.
When a variant is found locally, she said the protocol for contact tracing—and determining who was close enough to the individual to become infected—is the same as for a regular case.
Because of growing concern about the variants, the Virginia Department of Health released a new dashboard that shows the number of cases caused by variants statewide and in the 35 health districts. It’s available at vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covid-19-data-insights/variants-of-concern/.
Of the 965 cases statewide attributed to variants, 50 people ended up hospitalized, and five died, according to the state. Four of the deaths involved people in their 60s and the fifth was age 80-plus.
Two of the deaths occurred in the Chesapeake area with the others scattered around the state. One was in southwestern Virginia, another in central Shenandoah and one in the Chickahominy Health District which includes Hanover County and surrounding localities.
Those infected by variants represented a younger—and larger—group than those who’ve had the original COVID-19 virus. About 44 percent of those with variant infections were under age 30. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, about 35 percent of all virus cases have involved that age group.
The demographic information on variants is available only on the state level, not by individual health district. The website is updated each Friday.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425