The much-feared United Kingdom coronavirus variant is here in Hamilton County, and health officials say that while they will continue to closely observe it, the vaccines currently in production likely will help blunt the new strain.
Hamilton County Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman says that the B.1.1.7 variant, which was revealed earlier in the week, was detected through routine surveillance testing that the Ohio Department of Health submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sole Hamilton County patient who had the variant was placed in isolation but was later released clearing their symptoms.
“Early scientific reports found no evidence to suggest that the variant has any impact on disease severity and the vaccine still has efficacy against it,” Kesterman says.
In Ohio, there are currently 11 confirmed cases of the variant, spread throughout six counties: Hamilton, Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Portage and Ross.
Jennifer Forrester, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the University of Cincinnati, says that all viruses mutate; some mutations are benign, while others make a virus stronger and increase its survival. In SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the mutations are occurring in the spike proteins, creating the variants found in the United Kingdom, South Africa and elsewhere.
“What we have seen is that these variants seem to be more infectious and potentially more dangerous just by the numbers -- the more people who are infected, the more chance that someone has an adverse outcome, has a more severe disease or actually dies,” Forrester says. “Though as Commissioner Kesterman said, there is not clear evidence that these variants cause more severe disease in individuals. But regardless, this is why we’re concerned about them and why we’re screening for them.”
Forrester agrees with Kesterman that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are being produced now will help protect against the known mutations or reduce the severity of their symptoms, though the vaccines may not work as well as they do on the original virus.
But Forrester also cautions that because there likely will be more coronavirus variants, residents of Hamilton County -- and the nation -- should continue their COVID-19 protocols to slow the virus’s spread until more people are vaccinated.
“Until a large proportion of the public is immune and protected, it’s still important to continue with those practices that we know work to stop the spread of the virus: masking, social distancing, hand washing, cleaning high-touch surfaces, staying away from people when you’re sick, getting tested if you feel sick. If the virus can’t find another person to infect, then those mutations and variants can’t spread,” Forrester says.
“So until vaccines are more widely available, we really cannot let our guard down just yet. Continuing with our vigilance not only helps [protect] ourselves and each other from potentially serious disease, but really actually stops variants in their tracks. So what we’re doing now can work, has worked and can continue to work,” she adds.
During the Feb. 24 briefing, Kesterman says Hamilton County has about 5,000 active COVID-19 cases, but trends are heading in the right direction. On Dec. 10, the county had 716 cases a day, which Kesterman says was the county’s peak. Hamilton County now sees 170 cases a day, a significant decline. The region’s hospitals are seeing about 300 COVID-related patients a day, a change from November and December when the number was closer to 800 patients a day.
Like Forrester, Kesterman cautions residents to remain vigilant in efforts to slow the virus.
“There remains a lot of COVID in our community, so even though things are heading in the right direction, there still are about 5,000 cases with individuals who are sick right now in Hamilton County,” Kesterman says. “It’s really important with all this good news to remember to calm down and realize that we’ve got to be careful.
Full data through Feb. 24 is available on the Hamilton County Public Health website.