The race to get Virginians vaccinated gained additional urgency on Monday as the state confirmed its first case of a COVID-19 strain that’s more contagious and potentially deadlier.
Virginia’s Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services said the case was found in a resident from Northern Virginia who had no recent travel history. The division confirmed the case using genetic sequencing and has informed the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Dr. Denise Toney, director of the division.
Sequencing allows public health officials to “identify and respond to threats such as emerging COVID-19 variants,” Toney said in a media release Monday.
Named B.1.1.7, the variant first emerged in the United Kingdom. Since Friday, nearly 200 cases of the strain have been identified across 23 U.S. states.
“Viruses change all the time, and we expect to see new strains as disease spreads,” said Dr. Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner. “We know this variant strain spreads more quickly between people than other strains currently circulating in our communities, but we still have more to learn about whether it causes more severe illness. As our state public health officials closely monitor the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant in our commonwealth, it is important that all Virginians continue following mitigation measures.”
Two other COVID-19 variants have been circulating since the fall: One emerged in Brazil and has about 17 unique mutations, and the other is in South Africa.
Research continues to better understand the effectiveness of currently authorized vaccines against the new variants, but early data suggests Pfizer and Moderna doses should still provide protection from the U.K. and South African strains.
However, Moderna recently announced a lowered efficacy rate with the South African variant and said it would begin studies to test if adding an additional dose to the current two-shot regimen could boost immunity.
States are battling a nationwide supply shortfall that has already slowed the timeline for vaccinating the general population and reaching herd immunity. In preliminary data, scientists found the U.K. strain could be roughly 70% more contagious and may infect more children.
The high potential for a spike in infections caused countries across the world to shut down their borders to Britain. Starting Tuesday, travelers flying to the U.S. will be required to show proof of negative COVID-19 tests before boarding their flights. This will include U.S. citizens but exempt children under 2 years old.
During a panel discussion Friday on COVID-19 response and recovery that included Dr. Anthony Fauci, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, speakers warned against underestimating the variants.
“The thing to do is try to get literally a universal uniformity of adherence to public health measures,” Fauci said of what cities can do to reduce transmission. “If there is resistance to that, try and reach out to convince people of the importance of masking, of the importance of physical distancing. Of the importance of avoiding congregate settings, particularly indoors.”
Fauci added that despite pandemic fatigue, preventive measures need to continue until enough people are vaccinated.
The Virginia Department of Health said it’s working with communities across the state to slow the spread of any possible strains, supporting testing and vaccination efforts, investigating cases and outbreaks, and ramping up sequencing to get a better grasp of variants circulating.
On Monday, the VDH reported the state’s cumulative total of COVID-19 cases is 478,619, an increase of 14,868 from Friday.
The 478,619 cases consist of 385,892 confirmed cases and 92,727 probable cases. There have been 6,081 COVID-19 deaths in Virginia — 5,363 confirmed and 718 probable. That’s an increase of 79 from Friday.
The VDH defines probable cases as people who are symptomatic with a known exposure to COVID-19, but whose cases have not been confirmed with a positive test.
Statewide, the total number of people who have been hospitalized is 20,764, though the VDH’s dashboard notes that hospitalizations are underrepresented. According to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, 2,892 are currently hospitalized with positive COVID-19 cases or are awaiting test results, while 37,191 people have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and released.
In the Richmond area, there have been 53,056 cases: 18,005 in Chesterfield County, 17,411 in Henrico County, 12,109 in Richmond and 5,531 in Hanover County. Also, the region has had 742 deaths attributed to the virus: 330 in Henrico, 198 in Chesterfield, 119 in Richmond and 95 in Hanover.
There have been 2,240 outbreaks, which make up 54,993 of Virginia’s total cases. The VDH classifies an outbreak as at least two lab-confirmed cases.
Data from the VDH’s online dashboard show that the percentage of positive results from testing is at 12.6%.
More than 1.1 million vaccine doses have been distributed in Virginia. Of the 522,853 people who have been administered the vaccine thus far, 64,381 people are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received the recommended two doses.
State health officials have said there’s a lag in the reporting of statewide numbers on the VDH’s website. Figures on the website might not include cases or deaths reported by localities or local health districts.
If you have questions about COVID-19, call the VDH hotline at (877) ASK-VDH3, or (877) 275-8343.
Staff writer Holly Prestidge contributed to this report.