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UVa expert: High vaccination rate should stall possible surge from new COVID variant

University of Virginia medical officials say high vaccination rates in the state, region and on Grounds should serve as a safeguard against yet another variant of the COVID-19 virus reportedly making its way across the United States.

Public health officials are reviewing the COVID-19 lambda variant currently ravaging South America and spreading rapidly. It was first identified in December in Peru and has been detected in several states in the U.S., including South Carolina.

There are concerns that lambda could be as contagious as the delta variant now fueling increased COVID cases across the country.

“We’re fortunate because we have a relatively high vaccination rate and [Virginia] is one of the minority of states with a vaccination rate of more than 50%,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, medical director of UVa Health’s infectious disease program. He made his comments in a virtual press conference Friday.

“We’re seeing an uptick in the number of cases, but it’s not being translated into hospitalizations and deaths. Our daily case rate is 500 statewide and it was 150 two months ago, so that’s an increase, but it’s not as large as what’s occurring in other parts of the country like Missouri and Arkansas.”

Sifri said infectious disease experts are keeping an eye on lambda but noted that there are few countries that have epidemics of both delta and lambda variants. He also said the current crop of vaccines seems to be effective against both.

That’s good news for UVa. Officials say 85% of students have received their vaccinations and are eligible to enroll in classes for the fall. They estimated that 78.5% of the school’s academic division employees are fully vaccinated.

UVa required students to be vaccinated by July 1.

“All students who will live, learn, or work in person at the university during the upcoming academic year must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 before returning to the Grounds,” officials said in a coronavirus update to the school’s website. “Students who did not comply with the July 1 deadline to upload their information have been notified that their UVa ID cards have been deactivated, blocking access to buildings, services and resources. Cards will be reactivated within two business days once students take the necessary steps.”

According to the website, staff, faculty and employees were expected to have their vaccination information uploaded by Friday.

“Any employee who has not been vaccinated, or who has not shared proof of vaccination with the university by July 23, will be subject to mandatory prevalence testing at least once per week beginning Aug. 2,” the site states. “Individuals who are not vaccinated must also adhere to masking requirements.”

Sifri said it is hard to predict whether lambda is really more contagious than delta because of the low rate of vaccinations in South America.

“In Peru, where it was first identified, the population is largely not vaccinated. In that situation, there’s very little in the way of barriers to transmission,” he said. “It’s hard to know what’s occurring if things like wearing masks and social distancing are not being practiced. It may just be that it’s the variant that’s there and, with no barriers in place, we’re seeing more of it.”

If it seems like there is an entire alphabet full of virus variants, it’s because there is. The World Health Organization is using Greek letters to name COVID-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus variants.

Earlier this year, WHO convened a group of scientists and experts in nomenclature and communication to find an easy way to label variants that didn’t cast aspersions and stigmatize the countries or regions in which they are discovered.

WHO also has divided the variants into two classifications — variants of concern and variants of interest. Those listed as of concern have been shown to be more easily transmitted than the original strain. Those of interest could possibly fall into the same category.

Variants of concern that have been identified so far include alpha, from Great Britain; beta, from South Africa; gamma, from Brazil; and delta, from India.

Variants of interest include eta, which was found in several countries; iota, from the U.S.; kappa, from India; and lambda, from Peru.

Epsilon, from the U.S.; zeta, from Brazil; and theta, from the Philippines, have been downgraded to variants for future monitoring, along with 13 other variants.

After the original virus, the U.S. saw a case surge caused by the alpha variant. Now the country is seeing the delta variant go viral.

Sifri said the delta variant creates 1,000 times more virus in replication than the alpha strain, making it easier to transmit simply because of the viral load it produces. Changes in the structure of the virus make it easier for the virus to infect host cells, which also makes it easier to catch.

“In terms of variants, the ability to be more transmittable is going to be the most important factor for a variant to outcompete other variants,” Sifri said. “If lambda is found to be more transmissible in head-to-head competition with delta, that would be the way it would become the most dominate.”

With the number of mutant viruses only expected to increase, Sifri said vaccination is the surest method to avoid hospitalization or death. He said the new variants so far have not shown an ability to completely get around the vaccines.

Although some vaccinated people have reported contracting COVID, the illness has proven comparatively mild compared with the symptoms of those without vaccination.

“I think the level of vaccination we have provides some cushion. I don’t think it means we’re immune from seeing increasing case counts going forward. [More variants] will eventually make their way to our region. It’s just a matter of time,” he said.

Sifri said those who have not been vaccinated should wear masks in public, social distance and observe all the same precautions that were used before vaccinations were available.

“It’s really quite simple to avoid getting COVID and that’s to get vaccinated. If you’re not vaccinated, please wear a mask. And, before we get the delta variant in large amounts, get vaccinated,” he said.

“The delta variant is so transmissible that if you are not vaccinated, it has a good chance of finding you,” he said.


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