Geisinger awaits lab results to confirm the conclusion of its director of infectious diseases: That a more contagious variant of COVID-19 reached the Valley.
In data last updated April 1, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 431 cases in Pennsylvania and 12,505 nationwide were from the B117 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom in December. Dr. Stanley Martin said the variant is 50-70% more transmissible and “potentially more lethal,” though slightly so.
CDC lists B117 as a “variant of concern,” one for which there is evidence that it’s more transmissible and increases the severity of symptoms.
Martin said an analysis beyond PCR testing used to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus is necessary to determine whether a particular variant infected a patient. Samples were sent to CDC and elsewhere for variant testing, Martin said.
“We assume that we have seen it here,” Martin said. “We definitely know it’s much more easily spread from person to person.
“We have a very powerful tool to combat this virus. We have a vaccine and the vaccine will help with these variants as well,” Martin said. “Everybody should be signing up to get their vaccine.”
There are many variants spreading globally, Martin said. They don’t necessarily act differently or cause new symptoms. The B117 is of particular interest because it’s shown to be much more contagious, he said.
Media reports over the past week find some experts believe kids are at greater risk to contract, spread and suffer symptoms of COVID-19 due to the B117 variant. Martin said there’s not enough evidence to confirm that, adding that so far in the pandemic children have been less likely to spread the virus or experience symptoms.
“It certainly may be more easily transmissible between school-age students. We don’t know that for sure,” Martin said of the variant. “I’m not sure that we know the variant is a particular concern in the school setting just yet.”
Case counts and hospitalizations caused by COVID-19 are trending upward following a steady decline and subsequent plateau from late January into mid-March. In March, Geisinger saw COVID-19 positivity rates jump, especially among those age 30-59 years, from 12.8% in the first half of the month to 22.4% in the second half. Among those age 60+, positivity rates only increased from 8.6% to 10.6% in the same period.
Some experts in the media attribute the B117 variant as a potential cause. Martin agreed, though he said the rise is multifactorial. Another reason, Martin said, is a lax approach to pandemic precautions: wearing face masks, maintaining social distance, avoiding crowds, and frequently and properly washing hands.
“Everybody gets tired of it. I get tired of it, too. When we do, then infections start to spread again,” Martin said.
Everybody will soon be eligible in Pennsylvania. Eligibility in the commonwealth widened Monday to include people in the Phase 1B category and will expand again April 12 to Phase 1C. On April 19, all adults in Pennsylvania will be eligible.
State Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, a member of the vaccine legislative task force, said there will be enough vaccines available to meet public demand.
“April and May will be nothing like February and March,” Haywood said at a press conference last week.
There have been 5,632,986 total doses of the three available vaccines administered in Pennsylvania as of Monday morning, according to the Department of Health. A combined 2,010,955 people are now fully vaccinated in the commonwealth.
Phase 1B eligible Pennsylvanians include:
• People in congregate settings not otherwise specified as long-term care facilities, and persons receiving home and community-based services
• U.S. Postal Service workers
• Manufacturing workers
• Clergy and other essential support for houses of worship
• Public transit workers
• Education workers