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Virologist: COVID variant should be ‘warning to really double down’ on precautions

A mask on the pavement near the entrance of a hospital on Westminster Bridge in London, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Health experts are now saying that the variant of COVID-19 that has forced a national lockdown in the UK is likely already circulating undetected in Washington. Dr. Angela Rasmussen, virologist with Georgetown University, and weekly guest of the Gee & Ursula Show, doesn’t expect another lockdown in the United States, but she is concerned about the variant.

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“In terms of having another lockdown, I’m not sure that we should expect that because I don’t think that we can actually do that without providing a substantial amount of economic support to allow people to actually do that,” she said. “What we should understand about it is that while this variant is more transmissible, meaning that if you’re exposed to it, you will have a higher chance of actually becoming infected, it’s not being transmitted in any kind of different way.”

So while she agrees the COVID variant is probably already in Washington state, she sees that more as a warning to re-commit to the protections we know work against this virus.

“… People should really take this as a warning to really double down on their vigilance about the existing means that we have to reduce exposure risk and transmission,” Rasmussen said. “And that means that people need to be extra conscientious about wearing masks in public places, about physical distancing, about avoiding gatherings and enclosed environments, et cetera. People really, really, really need to focus on that because this new variant does seem to be much more transmissible.”

It’s not yet known for sure, Rasmussen explained, that the vaccines will protect against this variant, but early studies indicate that the mutations in the spike protein — which is what the vaccines are directed against — are not likely to evade immunity entirely.

“Although I would caution that that’s very preliminary,” she added. “And studies are ongoing to make sure that that is, in fact, the case.”

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There’s been conflicting data about the new variant’s potential to spread to kids or in schools. Initially, Rasmussen says it was suggested that children were more susceptible to the new variant.

“But it’s not clear that that’s actually the case,” she said. “Right now, and this is true of six months ago, and I think this will be true as the pandemic continues on, is that with regard to school, if we have community transmission that’s occurring at such significant levels that there’s really no way to avoid it, no matter how many precautions you’re taking to make the school environment safe, then that does probably call for closing down schools.”

“If we can get community transmission back to a lower level and, again, right now, community transmission is higher than it’s ever been. With this more transmissible variant going around, that has the potential to get even higher,” she added. “We really do need to think seriously about potentially closing schools and keeping people at home as much as possible, because right now I’m very, very concerned with the effect that this could have on our health care system.”

Even if the variant is more transmissible but not more virulent, meaning it’s not causing more severe disease, it’s still dangerous, she added, especially as a threat to already burdened hospitals and a strained health care system in the United States.

“[In] many places throughout the U.S., hospitals are at or about to be at capacity. If we have another surge of people getting infected on top of the existing surge that we have, that could really push our health care system past its breaking point, and that will in turn lead to more COVID deaths,” Rasmussen said.

“That will also lead to more deaths from causes that are not COVID, but are indirectly caused by it. For example, if you get into a car accident and you need to be taken to the hospital and go into the ICU, but that hospital is already full of COVID patients, then you might start to see people dying for other reasons because they can’t access health care that would normally save their lives,” she explained. “So that’s what people need to be thinking about when thinking about everything from schools to the kind of gatherings that they’re engaging in, the kind of behavior and the precautions that they’re taking when they do go out in public.”

And it’s not just a lack of hospital beds or room in the ICU that poses a problem, Dr. Rasmussen added.

“I might also take this opportunity to say that it’s not even just the beds, because we can get more beds in more buildings. … That’s not entirely the problem. The problem is also having enough staff to actually provide that medical care because it’s not the hospital bed that’s providing care for people in the ICU, it’s the physicians, and the respiratory therapists, and the nurses, and all of the people who are working in the hospital environment providing that health care,” she said. “And … that’s a finite supply. And those people are also getting sick. They’re exhausted. They’re burnt out, so that’s the other part of the health care system equation that I think doesn’t get enough attention.”

Hear Dr. Rasmussen’s answers to more KIRO Radio listener questions here

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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