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Local voices on COVID-19: The global impact of new variants

Jun 17, 2021 09:17AM ● By Editor
By Andrea Tofte, Cook County Public Health Educator from Cook County MN - June 17, 2021

This article is the seventh in a series intended to give some local perspective on issues about COVID-19. They are also intended to help readers make an informed decision about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Since the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic, the United States and the international community have been learning about the nature of the virus and its impact on human populations across the globe. Today, global efforts to vaccinate people have a few related goals: to limit severe disease due to COVID-19, to limit how much of the virus is spreading worldwide and to lower the chance that new variants of COVID-19 will develop.  

The way the virus spreads across human populations is tied to how the virus copies itself within human cells. As the virus copies itself inside a cell, some copies differ from the original one, representing a mutation known as a variant of the actual virus. Some variants become more common, while others fade away. Every time the virus infects a human being, there is the possibility that a new variant could arise. Globally, as more people in the world have become infected, more variants have been documented. 

A variant appears to be concerning when it increases the risk to human health. For example, it could spread more quickly, cause more severe illness or escape the protection provided by the available COVID-19 vaccines. Therefore, new variants of concern continue to challenge the pandemic response. Public health officials at the state and national level have developed a genomic-sequencing surveillance program to identify which variants are concerning, and where they are spreading. This information helps communities plan and act with the goal of avoiding dangerous outbreaks.

In regions of the world where the vaccination rates are really low, the spread of the virus creates a greater risk of developing a new variant of concern. While this might seem like a local problem, it can have an impact on our pandemic response efforts worldwide. An outbreak event in a distant location in the world can still pose a risk to our local population if a concerning variant travels and becomes more common in our region of the world.

Today, four main “variants of concern” defined by the World Health Organization continue to be detected and monitored within an increasing number of countries and territories worldwide. The most common is B.1.1.7, initially found in the U.K. and recently labeled as the Alfa Variant. The other three variants are Beta, Gamma and Delta, where this last one represents the variant B.1.617.2 detected in India.

To date, no “variants of high consequence” have been identified in the United States, which means that the vaccines that are currently available continue to work well and provide excellent protection from becoming severely ill due to the variants of COVID-19 that are currently circulating in the United States.  Other infection control practices like social distancing, wearing a mask if you are not fully vaccinated, washing your hands and staying home when sick, are also important tools that continue to prove effective at limiting the variants that we are currently aware of in our community and across the United States.

As COVID-19 continues to spread, in some regions more than other, we will see more variants emerge. This leads to a greater risk of new variants that can be more contagious, cause more severe illness, or limit how well our current vaccines work. Today, epidemiologists are tracking the variants and their effects closely and preparing strategies for potential future outbreaks that could challenge our pandemic response. 

Locally, we have been fortunate to have access to highly effective vaccines for COVID-19 for several months. Globally, the challenge is to ensure that people everywhere have rapid access to vaccination.  This will keep us all safer by limiting the spread of new variants. Every person who gets vaccinated plays an important role in ending this pandemic. Even with vaccines, tools like handwashing and staying home when sick remain best practices for us all as we hope to ease our way our of this pandemic together.

Andrea Tofte has a master’s degree in environmental science and lives in Tofte. She is a mother of two boys and a COVID-19 health educator working with Cook County Public Health.


Next week will be the last Q&A article of the series, focusing on the anxiety that people may feel surrounding vaccination. However, we continue to welcome questions. If you have a question, please email [email protected] or call 218-387-3605.  No question is too controversial. You can be assured that your questions will be kept anonymous.  

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