CHI infectious disease physicians answer questions about the new COVID-19 variants found in Nebraska

New mutations were recently detected in the state
Posted at 2:03 PM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 23:15:22-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Monday afternoon, CHI Health-Creighton University infectious disease physicians, Dr. David Quimby and Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan, answered questions from the press regarding the new COVID-19 variants.

The variants are naturally occurring mutations of the coronavirus. The doctors stressed that slowing the spread of COVID-19 will also slow the number of times it reproduces and mutates into new variants. It’s still the same virus, but with slight differences that might impact things like the infection rate.

"When you bring the infection rate down, the virus doesn’t have time to mutate and spread,” said Dr. Vivekanandan.

So far in Nebraska, two variants known as the U.K variant, also known as B.1.1.7, and the California variant, also known as B.1.429, have been reported. In Douglas County, one case of the U.K. variant is known and nine cases of the California variant have been reported.

But experts say its possible there are more cases we don’t know of.

“The actual [COVID-19] test cannot differentiate is it the old strain or the new strain," Dr. Vivekanandan said. "In order for us to know if its one of the newer variants, it has to be done sequenced specially in a different lab.”

The Moderna, Pfizer and soon-to-come Johnson & Johnson vaccines all say they are effective against variants, but how long they are effective is still undetermined.

“We don’t even really know how long vaccination is going to last and be protective, because we haven’t had enough time to assess that yet," said Dr. Quimby.

The experts say right now the goal is to get as many people vaccinated as possible before more variants appear.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which wasapproved by the FDAearlier this week, should speed up the process. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccine is delivered in one shot and does not need to be stored in extremely cold temperatures.

“Logistically a single shot is a whole lot easier than having to schedule than having to schedule people to come back at a certain time, not knowing if they’re going to have the supply when they’re coming back," said Dr. Quimby.

For those wondering what vaccine they should get, with all having varying degrees of effectiveness, the experts say all three have a high percentage of protecting against severe illness and death.

“The right vaccine for you, is the one that is available when your name comes up," Quimby said.

Even after being vaccinated, the experts say you should still be practicing social distancing and wearing a mask since scientists are still researching how we can carry and transfer the virus.

Highlights from the press conference included:

  • There are a number of new variants of the virus including those commonly known as the U.K., Brazil, South African and California variants. As of right now, we know that the U.K. and California variants have arrived in Omaha. By the end of March or April, they expect the U.K. variant to be the dominant strain in the Omaha metro area.
  • The U.K. variant seems to be more infectious, but the vaccines on the market appear to work well against it. There is not a lot of data about the California variant yet.
  • When asked about how long the vaccines will be effective, Quimby said that it’s too early to tell because we haven’t had enough time to assess that yet. Both physicians said they’ve had the vaccine and had it early because they were part of a clinical trial for one of the drugs. People in the drug trial are tested regularly for the antibodies to determine the length of their efficacy.
  • According to Vivekanandan, mRNA vaccines (such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) can be produced rapidly if new versions are needed. She added, “most likely we are protected for maybe a year.” As participants in a study, Vivekanandan and Quimby will be tested for two years.
  • Quimby mentioned that “not all vaccines are the same.” For instance, flu shots are needed annually, but the Yellow Fever vaccine is effective for 10 years.
  • Standard COVID-19 tests cannot differentiate if it’s a new variant. It has to be genetically sequenced in a lab. If a provider has a concern that a patient might have a new variant, the provider can have a sample sent to the National Public Health Lab for sequencing.
  • Both physicians emphasized that until most of the population is vaccinated, mask-wearing is still important. Quimby said that he was at a gas station convenience store and he was the only person in there wearing a mask. He cautioned that this is not the time to relax safety precautions.
  • Even those who are vaccinated should continue to wear a mask because they might still be a carrier.
  • It’s possible to catch COVID-19 more than once.
  • 80-85% of Nebraskans need to be vaccinated for herd immunity.
  • They hope that confidence in the safety of the vaccine will build as more people receive it. Once a lot of people have been vaccinated, others may see it’s safe. Right now, more people want to get vaccines than there are doses.
  • It’s hard to compare the data between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It has advantages such as only requiring one dose and not needing to be frozen at an extremely low temperature.
  • The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was created through a different process than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but it isn’t a live virus. It’s using copied information from the virus.
  • The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is very effective at preventing severe infection and death. It’s also easier to administer. They called the new vaccine “a game-changer.”

Watch the remarks below or our Facebook page.

Read more:

Download our apps today for all of our latest coverage.

Get the latest news and weather delivered straight to your inbox.

Coronavirus Resources and Information

Johns Hopkins global coronavirus tracker