A more contagious — and possibly more dangerous — strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been identified in several Southwest Virginia residents, and none has traveled recently, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
The news prompted renewed calls from health officials for residents to wear masks, social distance, follow other COVID-19 safety precautions and get the vaccine when they’re able.
SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the novel virus that causes COVID-19, the respiratory illness that has upended daily life and caused more than 2.5 million deaths around the world, according to The New York Times. SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 is a form of the virus that emerged in the United Kingdom late last year and has since begun cropping up in various parts of the U.S., according to a Health Department news release.
The first cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in Southwest Virginia were identified Friday, when the Health Department confirmed that three adult residents in the area had it, according to a statement from the VDH.
The B.1.1.7 variant “is associated with increased transmissibility (i.e., more efficient and rapid transmission),” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Initial reports from experts in the United Kingdom also suggest that the UK variant causes more severe cases of COVID-19 than other variants, the VDH statement said, but added that “more studies are needed to confirm this finding.”
None of the residents infected with the B.1.1.7 variant had traveled during the periods when they could have been exposed to it, according to the VDH, which said it “investigated all three cases and their close contacts and managed them appropriately.”
“... the significance [of those individuals’ lack of recent travel] is that the variant is spreading organically in the local population,” Logan Anderson, a public information officer for the health department, said Monday.
Anderson said the VDH could not respond to questions about the specific times and locations the B.1.1.7 cases were confirmed in Southwest Virginia, or about any symptoms being experienced by the people who tested positive, due to “patient privacy concerns.”
But Anderson did say that the variant’s presence in the region “increases the need for individuals to be vigilant in the weeks and months ahead.”
“We need to practice the steps we know stop the spread of the virus — wearing a mask, washing our hands frequently, and practicing social distancing of 6 feet from individuals not in our households — and to get the vaccine when it is our turn,” Anderson said.
Breanne Forbes Hubbard, population health manager for Virginia’s Mount Rogers Health District, echoed that message.
“We want our community to understand that it is critical to still remain vigilant — wear a mask, stay home when sick, social distance, avoid large gatherings, wash hands,” Forbes Hubbard said Monday. “Please get the vaccine when it is your turn.”