SC to test more for COVID-19 variants after South Africa strain was detected in state

Updated: Jan. 29, 2021 at 7:23 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The South Carolina Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working to limit the transmission of the new, highly contagious South Africa COVID-19 variant detected in South Carolina late Wednesday.

“The CDC and DHEC may never be able to determine with certainty where these two individuals contracted the South Africa variant, and our attention is focused on limiting further spread,” explained DHEC interim director Dr. Brannon Traxler.

Both agencies are asking everyone to recommit themselves to masking, social distancing, and handwashing. Some health officials warn if we don’t, we could see another spike in cases and hospitalizations.

Prisma Health infectious disease physician Dr. Divya Ahuja says it’s too early to panic, but he believes the variant has already spread throughout our state.

“There are more of these variants than just those two cases,” said Dr. Ahuja. “How many? We don’t know yet.”

Health officials say these mutated versions of COVID-19 spread more easily and quickly, but there’s no evidence yet that they cause more severe illness.

Ahuja says as a nation, we aren’t sequencing, or looking for COVID-19 variants, as much as we should be. That’s because he says materials to do so have been limited.

“The CDC is sending more resources to DHEC,” he noted. “I actually confirmed that with DHEC today. They are sending more resources, the ability to do more genomic testing, and look for those mutations. We can pick up the number and then do contact tracing, and DHEC can try to limit the number of cases.”

Vaccine makers are also working to get ahead of these new variants. Moderna is adjusting its vaccine because this South Africa variant could weaken immunity over time. So how often will we need to get COVID-19 vaccines?

“I’m going to guess that this will be a once every year, or once every two-years vaccine, at least for the foreseeable future,” said Dr. Ahuja.

Because these new variants are more contagious, Ahuja says some countries are looking into nine feet of social distancing instead of six, but health experts say mutated versions of COVID-19 spread the same way as the original virus.

“The same disease precautions that we have in place, such as masks and physical distancing, are what protect us from this strain and all currently known strains of the virus that causes COVID-19,” Traxler explained.

Some health officials note to get ahead of these variants and prevent them from becoming dominant in our communities like what we’ve seen in the U.K. and South Africa, we need to ramp up our vaccination efforts. South Carolina is slated to receive approximately 10,000 additional doses next week, but DHEC says demand is still outpacing supply.

The CDC has warned that the U.K. variant could become dominant in the United States by the spring.

Health officials say there is still limited research available regarding this South Africa variant.

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