UPDATE (APRIL 13, 2021 6:45 p.m.):
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Dr. Diane Gross, an epidemiologist at MCHD said that variants are increasingly concerning because COVID cases in Monongalia CO. and the state are “inching up again”.
We’re trending slightly upwards, and we want to keep that curve flat, we don’t want them to come back. We are starting to see cases not in huge numbers, but the trend is back to increasing a little and increasing a little in hospitalizations as well. At this point, it’s not alarming. It’s a good reminder to us that we have to stay vigilant in our efforts to keep us from getting another spike.Dr. Diane Gross – Epidemiologist, MCHD
Vigilance, Gross said, looks like continuing to wear a mask and follow all COVID guidelines, even if you are vaccinated.
“You need to avoid crowds especially inside poorly ventilated areas,” she said. “You want to keep washing your hands. If you think you might have COVID, if you’re sick go get tested, isolate yourself. And really importantly, get vaccinated.”
There are no longer long waiting lines at vaccine clinics. Everyone in West Virginia 16 and up is eligible to receive inoculation and should take advantage, Gross said.
That’s because variants will continue to pop up until we, as a societal collective, have herd immunity and can stop the virus from replicating.
“But because these variants can occur, we don’t want them, we don’t want new variants to come,” Gross said. “We want to control the ones that are there. We want to stop this virus from spreading and having the potential to develop in more serious ways.”
The county continues to test random samples from COVID-19 tests for COVID variants.
In addition, MCHD looks for cases that may be reinfections, where someone was infected earlier and they have another bout of COVID. Or, cases that have severe disease, or meet some other criteria that’s set out by the state.
For logistical reasons it is not feasible to test every sample from testing sites for variants. This means that MCHD does not have a full grasp of how many variant cases are in the county, but it does know how people can protect themselves.
“We think it’s incredibly important that people stay vigilant,” Gross said. “We’re tired of being in this pandemic. We’re tired of the winter, the spring is here, we have cabin fever, but now is not the time to throw caution into the wind and throw that mask away and go out and party in crowds. We still need to – you can go outside, that’s great, but you still need to wear a mask. Even if you have been vaccinated, wear a mask.”
ORIGINAL (APRIL 12, 2021 1:23 p.m.):
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – As of April 9, the Monongalia County Health Department is following nearly 200 COVID-19 variants of concern, including more than 32 cases of the United Kingdom (U.K.) variant [B.1.1.7], and 164 cases of the California variant, which has two mutations [B.1.427/B.1.429].
According to a press release, 90% of West Virginia’s California variant cases are in Monongalia County, while one-third of the state’s U.K variant cases are there.
“These variants of concern are both more infectious, and the U.K. variant is associated with an increased risk of death,” said Dr. Lee B. Smith, MCHD executive director and county health officer.
“These mutations occur on the outside of the virus and change the way they adhere to human cells, but do not change how the virus behaves. This means the illness looks the same but may be more severe,” he added.
However, scientists do not yet fully know how the California variant will impact people, the health department explained.
“What is clear is that we are seeing infections in children down to age 6,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, this is just a partial snapshot, as we are only doing a small number of genetic tests, including those who are now experiencing a second COVID-19 infection, those with infection following vaccination, and other random samples.”
That means health officials do not know the extent of these infections in the community, the release states.
“However, we do know that the number of infections is increasing quickly,” Smith said. “Vaccination helps reduce risk of infection, severity of illness, chance of hospitalization and possibility of death from COVID-19.”
As of April 9, about 60,000 COVID-19 vaccines had been administered by the Monongalia County Health Department, as well as at the Greater Monongalia County COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic at the old Sears building at the Morgantown Mall, according to the release. That includes 37,326 first doses and 22,544 second doses.
The health department said these variants, especially the more infectious and deadly U.K. version, are a good reason to keep up COVID-19 safety measures.
“People still need to wear masks, even if they have been vaccinated,” Smith said. “And they should be cautious in other ways, by socially distancing when not around individuals with whom they live, washing their hands often and using common sense when they go out in public and engage in activities.
“Please do not cast all caution to the wind and hope for the best. Now is not the time to let your guard down.”
Two other known variants, Brazil [P.1] and South Africa [B.1.351], have not been discovered
in Monongalia County, according to the health department.
According to information on the CDC’s website, “These variants have mutations in the virus genome that alter the characteristics and cause the virus to act differently in ways that are significant to public health.” That means that a variant “causes more severe disease, spreads more easily between humans, requires different treatments and changes the effectiveness of current vaccines.”
Dr. Diane K. Gross, MCHD regional epidemiologist, noted some differences between the two variants found in Monongalia County.
“This U.K. variant is estimated to be 50% more transmissible and more severe than the ‘original’ virus,” she said. “The California variants are estimated to be 20% more transmissible, with no change in severity. However, they may be more likely to evade our immune defenses from natural infection or from vaccination.
“So the California variant may not spread as much as the U.K. variant, but it may be more likely to infect someone who had the virus previously or who was vaccinated.”
Existing variants and potential for additional ones is also a reason why the MCHD still recommends that individuals who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days instead of a shorter amount of time, the release explains.
“We have been consistent since the beginning of this pandemic,” Smith said. “The only exception is where those employed suffer economic hardships. That’s the person who endures hardship from not being able to go to work.”
West Virginia COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths have been on the rise again, according to the health department. After not exceeding 400 cases since late February, the daily state COVID-19 count reached 433 on March 25 and 566 on March 27. On April 9, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources announced 479 new cases. There also have been 61 deaths reported
statewide in the first nine days of April.
Right now, testing and vaccines remain the best public health tools in the arsenal to fight COVID-19, the health department asserts. The MCHD conducts testing on most Mondays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the WVU Rec Center.
“We want to emphasize that testing is still very important, even though many individuals are focused on vaccines now,” Smith said. “The estimate is that about 40% or more of people who have COVID-19 don’t have symptoms. And individuals are contagious before they develop symptoms. So even if you aren’t having symptoms, it’s a good idea to periodically know what your COVID-19 status is.”
Last month, Gov. Jim Justice announced that anyone 16 or older can get a COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccine administration at the Greater Monongalia County COVID-19 Clinic has been ramped up to three to four clinics a week for the next month.
“There really is no excuse for most people in this age group to not get a vaccine,” Smith said. “Not only will you help protect yourself, your friends and your family, but it also helps the community achieve herd immunity against COVID-19. It will also help in the fight to keep these new variants at bay.”
Individuals are now able to make a vaccine appointment directly online. Testing days and times can be found at MCHD’s website, and on the health department’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.
“More than three months ago, when we started vaccinating the public, most people had to be placed on a list,” Smith said. “We’re happy to report that getting a vaccine now is as easy as going online, selecting a time and day and arriving at the clinic, which has been set up to be an efficient system for inoculating the public.”