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Should you be worried about the new COVID-19 variant? Local health officials share evidence and thoughts
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Lead microbiologist Maureen Clancy prepares to insert COVID-19 sample into a testing machine Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

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Now that the COVID-19 variant, B. 1. 1. 7, has been confirmed in Georgia, new concerns have arisen about its level of contagiousness, interaction with vaccines and symptom presentation.

Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s medical director of infectious disease medicine, said she has not personally worked with an identified variant case because the health system doesn’t offer a test to determine if someone specifically has B. 1. 1. 7. However, she said this doesn’t mean she hasn’t come across a patient with the variant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, B. 1. 1. 7 was first detected in September 2020 and is now “highly prevalent in London and southeast England.” Since then, the agency has reported its detection in “numerous countries around the world,” including the U.S. and Canada.

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Tammy McCoy unpacks specimen tubes Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center's testing lab. - photo by Scott Rogers

“I think it’s been in the community for some time,” Mannepalli said. “The first case that was reported in Georgia had no history of travel to the U.K.”

Mannepalli explained that variants, or mutations, are not new to the virus. So far, the CDC has also reported different variants in South Africa and Brazil. Mannepalli said she recently heard of another emerging in California. 

“What we have identified with this is that it’s (B. 1. 1. 7) more contagious, it spreads to more people,” she said. “That means we’re going to see more positive cases in the community easily spreading also.”

Mannepalli assures people that medical specialists have not witnessed the specific variant causing more severe illness or an increase in mortality. The medical director said she has not seen reports about different symptoms, compared to the original COVID-19, among those with B. 1.1. 7.

Luckily, she said Pfizer pharmaceutical company is confident that its current COVID-19 vaccines protect against the variant, and the same goes for Moderna.

“Even if there have been some alterations because of mutations, which is what we’ve seen with the B. 1. 1. 7 variant, we still expect the vaccine to be effective,” she said. “Honestly, I’m staying optimistic that even with mutations, the vaccine will prevent the severe form of COVID-19.”

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Tammy McCoy unpacks specimen tubes Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center's testing lab. - photo by Scott Rogers

How to know if you have the variant

Micah Anderson, director of laboratory services at Northeast Georgia Health System’s HealthLink, said the polymerase chain reaction tests that have been used to identify COVID-19 cases will pick up the variant. However, if a person has it, the test will only display a COVID-19 positive result, it won’t determine if someone specifically has B. 1. 1. 7. 

Anderson said the health system is working to make an additional test available to the public. 

Discovery of the first determined case in the state reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health on Jan. 10 was made during an analysis of a specimen sent by a pharmacy to a commercial laboratory. 

When NGHS does eventually begin offering tests to locate the variant, Anderson said it will be an additional analysis they would run.

Mannepalli said if someone has B. 1. 1. 7, doctors will treat them the same way they would with the original COVID-19.

“I think the most important thing is that they follow all the basic precautions that we’ve been talking about for the last year and really emphasize the mask use,” Mannepalli said. “And, get the vaccine as soon as they're in the eligible phase. Because of the information we have that we know, from that we can say these precautions help us prevent transmission and illness from these new variants.”