PHOENIX — COVID-19 infections in Arizona appeared to be leveling off last week when officials confirmed that a variant of the virus, first found in the United Kingdom, had been found in Pinal and Maricopa counties.
Not good news, but experts say things could be worse.
“If this new variant had become dominant in early January, it would have been an utter disaster because we were already headed on the upslope and it would’ve made things even worse,” said Will Humble, the director of the Arizona Public Health Association.
But Humble is cautiously optimistic, and state health officials said that for now, they are keeping a close eye on the situation.
There are at least three known cases of the U.K. variant of COVID-19 in Arizona, one of 33 states that have found at least one case of the mutated version of the virus, labeled B.1.1.7, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Published reports said two of the cases were discovered in Maricopa County and one in Pinal County by late last week. Arizona Department of Health Services officials have not released further details on the cases or what ZIP codes they were found in, but Dr. Cara Christ said the department is “carefully watching the variants.”
“We have been working with partners that have been doing sequencing around the variants of the virus,” Christ, the director of the department, said Monday. “We do know that the variant appears to be easier to transmit, which could lead to a surge in cases.”
The U.K. variant is the most common of three mutations that have been found in the U.S., with 541 cases reported as of Tuesday. One case of a Brazilian variant has been confirmed in Minnesota and three cases of a South African version have been found, one in Maryland and two in South Carolina.
All three appear to spread more easily than the original version, which could stress health care facilities if they cause a spike in infections, according to the CDC.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this evolution of COVID-19 was not unexpected.
“If the virus replicates enough, mainly when there is a lot of infection in the community and in the world, you get mutations that do impact the virus’s function,” Fauci said Tuesday during a Washington Post Live event.
Fauci added that the mutations could make the virus more transmissible, more dangerous, or even resistant to antibodies and vaccines. He said the B.1.1.7 variant “increased the transmissibility of the virus and just recently the British colleagues have said that it actually increases somewhat the seriousness of the infection.”
But he says the U.K. variant is less concerning to him than the version from South Africa, which appears to have the ability of reinfecting people who have recovered from the disease.
Pfizer and Moderna, the makers of two COVID-19 vaccines, said this month that their drugs appear to work against the U.K. variant. But the CDC said there is still much that is unknown about the variants, including how they spread and how they might respond to treatments.
News of the variants in Arizona comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the state, which posted the highest number of new cases per 100,000 residents last week, according to the CDC. Total cases in the state reached 765,083 and deaths totaled 13,362 as of Tuesday, according to state health department data.
Humble said Arizona may be helped by the fact that infections, while still among the highest in the nation, have started to trend downward, which could make it easier for health care officials to respond.
“Now we are headed on a slight downslope so we are in a better position to tolerate the new strain a little bit than we were say three or four weeks ago,” Humble said.
Christ said it helps that the variant appeared in Arizona after the development of effective vaccines, which should help in the fight. Her comments came Monday at the opening of a second state-run mass vaccination site, at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The state had administered 702,664 doses of vaccines as of Tuesday.
“That is one of the reasons we are so focused on getting the vaccine out as quickly to as many people as we can,” Christ said.
In the meantime, she repeated the now-familiar mantra for people to defend against the virus – wear a mask, physically distance, and stay home when sick.