New coronavirus strains likely already spreading in US, CDC says

Dr. Pino: Vaccines will be effective against new COVID-19 variants

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Recent reports suggest new strains of the coronavirus have been detected in other parts of the world, including Britain and South Africa.

Health experts in the U.K. and U.S. said the strain seems to infect more easily than others, but there is no evidence yet it is more deadly.

Some nations have implemented new travel restrictions in an effort to block the virus variants -- which, according to health experts, appear to infect more easily than others -- from spreading.

The new variant, known as B.1.1.7, has not been detected in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, viruses have only been sequenced from about 51,000 of the 17 million infections in the U.S. The UK has the most sequences with 125,000, according to the CDC.

The CDC issued guidance Tuesday about the implications of the variant.

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“Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current UK infections, increase the likelihood of importation,” the CDC said in a statement. “Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected.”

To better track variants of the coronavirus in the U.S., the CDC will begin receiving 10 samples from each state in January every other week for sequencing and further analysis.

On Monday, when Central Florida’s top health official was asked if he thought travel from the spots where the “new” strains are being reported should be temporarily halted, he said it’s probably too late.

“Although everyone is trying to stop how this new strain may spread across the world, it could be already across the world because it’s not a case that was identified yesterday ... so this had happened,” said Dr. Raul Pino, with the Florida Department of Health-Orange County. “So it’s safe to assume that it has spread to some places already.”

Pino said during a news conference on Monday that the analysis that determined that there was a mutation of the virus was done retrospectively, so the virus variants have likely been around for a while.

And according to a recent report by The Associated Press, that’s normal.

Viruses naturally evolve as they move through the population, some more than others. It’s one reason we need a fresh flu shot each year.

New variants, or strains, of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been seen almost since it was first detected in China about a year ago.

The good news, according to Pino, is that the new vaccines just approved by U.S. health officials are designed to protect those who are inoculated from variants, too.

“It’s also important to know that the vaccines that are in place will continue to be effective even against them,” Pino said.

Pino said it’s important to remember that the vaccine won’t eliminate the coronavirus completely and that the best way to protect yourself from any virus, including the flu, is to practice CDC guidelines.

“We are actually pleasantly surprised how low our flu season has been this season. Although the flu goes up and down, we think that the use of the mask has had an impact on flu transmission as well,” Pino said. “So it is important to continue to wear your mask and please do not trust the vaccine yet because the vaccine, as we are going to implement it, will not have an effect on the pandemic right away.”

According to the latest data, Orange County has reported 69,491 cases of COVID-19 and more than 700 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

As of Monday night, more than 5,000 people have been vaccinated in Orange County using the Pfizer shot, according to Pino. The county is preparing to receive 16,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday and plans to vaccinate EMS personnel Dec. 26-31.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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