Containing the new variant
Experts are worried that during the next few weeks the new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus known as B.1.1.7 could explode in the United States, becoming the dominant variant and quickly overwhelming hospitals — as has happened in Britain.
The new variant has been more resistant to lockdown measures in Britain, according to new research. Dozens of cases of the new variant have now been discovered in at least five U.S. states: California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and New York.But public health experts say there is still time to contain it — if only they could see it.
Unfortunately, my colleague Carl Zimmer reports, the U.S. has no large-scale, nationwide system for checking coronavirus genomes for new mutations. Such a program could help deepen our understanding of the new variant, along with other, possibly more dangerous variants that may be on the horizon.
It’s even more important in the U.S., Carl told me, because the virus is so out of control. “The more mutation you have, the more of the chance you have that it’s going to turn into something dangerous,” he said.
Currently, genetic sequencing of the coronavirus is done by a patchwork of academic, state and commercial labs, and at an abysmally low rate. Of the roughly 1.4 million people who test positive each week, fewer than 3,000 samples are sequenced. Experts say the U.S. should be sequencing at least five times as many samples if the country wants to better understand the variant and spot new mutations.
If a national surveillance program was put in place, as in Britain, scientists could determine how widespread the variant is, as well as pinpoint emerging hot spots. Public health officials could then warn the public and institute better ways to contain it, such as using better masks, closing schools or instituting temporary lockdowns. (A spokesman for the incoming Biden administration told Carl that it may be open to the idea of a national program.)
But as we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, moving quickly is key.
“We’ve already had this mutant take us by surprise,” Carl said. “It’s been in this country for weeks and so it’s all over the place now, and we didn’t know it. If there’s another dangerous variant, we need to know when it crops up. Otherwise, it’s like waiting for half your house to be on fire before you call the fire department.”
Arizona’s second surge
For the second time this year Arizona is the state with the highest rate of new virus cases in the U.S. Over the past week, the state has averaged more than 8,000 cases per day, more than twice the rate during its summer surge.
The hospital system is stretched alarmingly thin, and hundreds of health care workers are being flown in from other states. Medical experts say drastic measures — like rationing care — may soon have to be considered. At the same time, Arizona is administering vaccines at one of the slowest rates in the country.
Public health experts in the state say the virus was able to come roaring back because of lax enforcement of some virus measures and a lack of public vigilance that could help stem the outbreak. Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, has consistently rejected appeals for tougher restrictions like a statewide mask mandate, the cancellation of big sporting events or the shutdown of in-person schooling. He drew criticism this week after videos surfaced on social media of his son dining and partying in crowded spaces without a mask.
Some Arizonans do not believe that virus restrictions are the solution and also doubt that the recent spike is something to be concerned about. Francisco Sirvent, a lawyer who lives in Chandler, started a Facebook group in April called “Reopen Arizona” that now has almost 500 members.
“I think people are going about their life a little bit more, and that’s probably why the spike happened,” he said, adding, “I’m an absolute believer that we need to develop herd immunity.”
What else we’re following
What you’re doing
I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in May with my old college roommate. It has been a great way to stay in touch, meet some new people and socialize, all virtually. It has also been a great creative outlet too. My characters get to live out all my social life dreams in-game. Our fantasy world has its fair share of terrifying problems, but the one I don’t have to battle and fear for a few hours each week? Covid-19
— Aaron Aboaf, Logan, Utah
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