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COVID-19 variants “are already here,” U of U doctors say

Local health officials say some people are going on the search for a COVID-19 vaccine, despite not meeting the state requirements. (PHOTO: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Doctors say COVID-19 variants are already in Utah because they are already seeing cases pop up in coronavirus testing. Experts from University of Utah Health held a news conference Thursday to allow Utahns to better understand the current situation.

COVID-19 variants likely already in Utah

Hearing about the British variant or South African variant might make people nervous. But Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the division of infectious diseases at U of U Health, said every infected person has some variant of the disease. And if that variant works to get you sick, it will try to jump to others in the population.

It’s because the spike protein on the virus surface changes or mutates — often during its travel from person to person — as it tries to survive.

“It isn’t just that they are coming in from Britain or South Africa, they are already here,” Swaminathan said. “And there are homegrown variants in California. The way you get variants is Darwinian evolution, it’s selection of the fittest.”

But there isn’t enough evidence yet to show whether the variants themselves are more deadly or less subject to immunity from the vaccine, he said.

“Even if the virus isn’t intrinsically more disease-causing, if you are getting more people infected, you are going to have more deaths just because of the numbers,” Swaminathan said.

Vaccines in the age of coronavirus variants

It’s likely the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are highly effective in producing immunity right now, according to recent studies. Experts predict the Johnson and Johnson version of the vaccine will also be available soon.

The question was asked if Utahns should double-mask now because of the prevalence of variants. Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at University Hospital, said people can if they want to — but he’d rather see people just wear a mask properly.

“Wear it over your nose, secure it tightly over your nose,” Vinik said. “Wear it all the way under your chin, not just on top of your chin.”

Drop in infection rate sparks hope in Utah doctors

Meanwhile the COVID-19 positivity rate is going down in Utah, reaching about 18% as of Thursday.

“Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen the trend come down pretty steep,” said Erin Clouse, strategic engagement manager at U of U Health. “It is still a high rate but the trend is going in the right direction.”

“There’s a lot of people in the grocery store who have COVID,” Swaminathan said. “We want the positivity rates to be at 5%, ideally 3%, to see that the community spread is at a manageable level.”

During the conference, the doctors said these numbers will keep improving as people get the vaccine. They have seen rates among their own staff drop significantly.

This comes as doctors, nurses and health care workers continue phase 1 of the vaccination distribution plan and many have already received their second dose.

That also prompted the group to reassure people that hospitals and doctors’ offices are safe.  Vinik said the concern now is the drop in people getting preventative screenings and treatments for cancer and heart disease, which lead COVID-19 in causes of death in Utah.