GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Health officials in West Michigan are preparing for a new, more contagious strain of COVID-19.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced Saturday it had identified the first case of “B.1.1.7” in Washtenaw County.
“We’re watching it,” said Mercy Health St. Mary’s division chief of infectious disease Dr. Andrew Jameson. “We’re certainly not looking forward to it and would love to avoid it.”
Jameson says it’s possible the new variant may already be in West Michigan.
“It’s probably here already,” he said. “Our hope is that it doesn’t get ingrained and have a rapid spread like it has in other parts of the country.”
“The way that we would know if it’s really here is if all of a sudden we saw our case rate accelerate beyond at a rate that we are not expecting."
According to MDHHS the infected woman recently traveled to the United Kingdom, where the virus originated in the final months of 2020.
“What happened here is this: During the replication process, the RNA as it was going through, it’s dividing, had an error,” said Jameson. “The error didn’t get fixed, but that error actually made it easier for the virus to attach to people.”
Health officials say the symptoms and severity of the new strain do not appear to be any different than the original, but this variant spreads more easily.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted B.1.1.7 to be the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. by March.
“The mutations in the spike protein themselves seem to indicate that it binds tighter to the receptor in human cells than other variants of the coronavirus, thus increasing its ability to be transmitted from person to person,” said Dr. Liam Sullivan, infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health.
Jameson and Sullivan both worry about what B.1.1.7 means for case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths in the area.
“If you are getting more people infected than normal, basically that same percentage of people that would be getting sick, are still going to get sick,” said Jameson. “If we’re looking at instead of 100 patients in Kent County that get infected in one day [to] all of a sudden to 300 patients, that same percentage will end up coming to the hospital, so we’re going to have a lot more people getting hospitalized.”
Sullivan urges people to continue good health practices.
“They need to keep wearing masks, they need to keep practicing social distancing,” said Sullivan. “They need to keep avoiding crowds for right now and to keep washing their hands.”
Current tests work in detecting B.1.1.7, but to identify the variant, samples must be sent to MDHHS’ Bureau of Laboratories for genome sequencing.
Pfizer has said its vaccine appears to protect against the new strain. Moderna is still conducting tests to see if its vaccine does as well.