The more infectious UK variant of the COVID-19 virus has been identified on the University of Virginia grounds, officials confirmed on Friday.
The discovery comes as the school sees a surge of 145 COVID cases diagnosed since Monday among staff and students, according to the university’s COVID tracker dashboard. Of those 145 cases reported this week, 138 were students.
As Friday, there are 222 active COVID cases at UVa according to the website with an average of 36 new cases per day.
University officials said the variant’s discovery was expected.
“As we anticipated this semester, we have confirmed that there are cases of the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, also known as the UK variant, in our community,” the officials wrote in a message to the UVa community.
“The primary difference between this variant, which is now present in 37 states, and the original strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is that the UK variant is more contagious,” officials said. “We are also experiencing a troubling rise in positive cases in our student community, distributed widely between on-Grounds and off-Grounds residents.”
On Feb. 8, UVa officials locked down the Gibbons residence hall for 24 hours after 17 COVID cases were identified in the dormitory. Students and resident staff were told to stay in their rooms while another round of tests was administered.
As of Wednesday night, 15% of UVa student COVID isolation beds and 22% of quarantine beds were occupied.
UVa officials said they will keep a 6-person limit on gatherings at the university and could move all classes online, should conditions worsen. They could also limit student ability to travel off of Grounds as well as around Grounds.
“If cases continue to increase, our isolation and quarantine capacity will become strained and we will be forced to consider stricter measures,” the officials wrote.
COVID variants first discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil are mutant versions of the original SARS-CoV-19 virus. The variants make it easier to transmit between people and help it evade antibodies.
The UK and South African variants have previously been found in Virginia. Although there has been no official finding of it, many health officials believe it is likely the Brazilian variant may have also found its way to the region.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the new virus strains appear to be susceptible to the vaccines now being distributed.
“So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently authorized vaccines recognize these variants,” health officials said on the CDC website. “This is being closely investigated and more studies are underway.”
The CDC indicated that there is no evidence that the new variants, although more easily transmitted, are more virulent than the original COVID-causing virus.
The centers are studying the variants to determine if they change how the disease progresses in patients and whether existing drugs and therapies are still effective.
At a Friday morning virtual press briefing, prior to the announcement of the UK variant being found on Grounds, UVa Health officials said the variants were to be expected.
“They’re in the U.S.. They’re in Virginia. We should prepare and anticipate that there will be variants here,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at UVa Medical Center.
Also on Friday, the Blue Ridge Health District, which had been providing pre-registration for persons trying to arrange COVID vaccine appointments, shut its system down at 5 p.m. in order to transition to a new system.
The information gathered so far is set to be transferred to the Virginia Department of Health’s new statewide registering system that will go online at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
Wait lists from local districts are supposed to be imported into the new statewide system over the weekend with pre-registration temporarily shut down until the state system is up and running.
The move comes as the state health department attempts to centralize the process of registering for and getting vaccines as it doles out doses to hospitals, health systems and pharmacies.
An estimated 3,000 vaccine doses are allocated to the Blue Ridge Health District each week. The district includes Fluvanna, Louisa, Greene, Nelson and Albemarle counties and the city of Charlottesville.
According to the website, the district is only vaccinating individuals in Phase 1a, which includes frontline healthcare workers, plus limited selections from Phase 1b, including first responders, and people older than 75.
“We are not scheduling appointments for anyone else right now. Due to a limited vaccine supply, it will be March or April before we open to vaccinate the rest of Phase 1b,” the website states.
Others in Phase 1b are those who work in corrections, food and agriculture, the U.S. Postal Service, manufacturing, grocery stores, public transit, teachers and child care workers.
Phase 1b also includes persons between 16 and 64 years old with medical conditions that increase the risk for severe COVID-19 and those between 65 and 74 years old.
Phase 1c includes those in transportation, utilities, food service, construction, finance, information technology, communications, law, news media, engineering and public health.
According to the state health department’s website, it could some time before those already registered to get the vaccine can get an appointment.
“It may be weeks or longer before vaccination appointments become available for those who have pre-registered,” the department’s website states. “At this time, there is no set date for the start of Phase 1c.”
CVS Pharmacies began distributing vaccines supplied by the state with the Fifth Street store in Charlottesville being the local center. Appointments must be made prior to receiving a shot and can be made online or by calling (800) 746-7287.
As of Friday, the first day the vaccines were available, all appointments were booked.
Sentara Health Care, a statewide and regional nonprofit corporation which owns Martha Jefferson Hospital and many family practices and other health clinics in the region, announced earlier this week that it would not be providing vaccines for its patients.
“The Commonwealth of Virginia has begun to prioritize vaccine distribution to local health departments rather than hospitals and health systems,” Sentara officials said in a statement. “We encourage everyone, including Sentara patients, to explore every available avenue to receive a vaccine and take the first available opportunity. These opportunities could include non-Sentara clinics hosted by local health departments, neighborhood pharmacies, or other healthcare organizations. It is unlikely that Sentara will receive enough vaccines to offer appointments to all of our patients at this time.”
Federal health officials have suggested that it could be July or August before vaccines are available for all Americans who want one.
In the meantime, local health officials are recommending area residents continue to wear masks and avoid gatherings, especially in the face of new variants.
Sifri said that the number of COVID cases being reported, the percentage of tests with positive results and the number of people hospitalized with the virus have all decreased in the area as in the state and country.
That, he said, should not lull people into relaxing their guard.
“What we really need to do is double-down and really focus on what [limits] COVID and that’s wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing,” he said. “This is not the time to become lax on mask wearing. It’s not the time to reduce our precautions.”