The first confirmed case of a new and more transmissible strain of COVID-19 has appeared in the United States. While experts believe it is no more deadly than the prevalent strain, and expect that the vaccines will still be effective against it, this new strain could be up to 70 percent more contagious.
There are additional reports of the possible existence of a second case of the new strain — named B.1.1.7 — in the same Colorado county as the first.
“Both the confirmed case and the suspected instance involve men who had been working at the Good Samaritan Society assisted living facility in Simla, about 45 miles northeast of Colorado Springs,” says CNN. The facility is home to 25 residents, and suffered a COVID outbreak less than three weeks ago that claimed the lives of two of those residents. Some 40 percent of all COVID deaths in the U.S. have taken place in such facilities nationwide.
The fact that the first man did not travel before becoming infected is an indicator to scientific investigators that B.1.1.7 is already spreading within that Colorado community, and given its increased communicability, could already be widespread after the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel seasons. The lack of any meaningful national testing system or contact tracing platform makes determining this enormously difficult.
Yet COVID remains COVID, even with a new nickname, and COVID is like water: It finds the cracks and the seams and the pinholes, and it pours straight through. By all reports, the new and more contagious strain of COVID is even more adept at this.
Strain. An apt word for the moment. COVID has exploded across the nation, tallying an average of 3,000 deaths per day. In California, where the crisis is now out of control, hospital gift shops are being turned into triage and ICU wards, and ambulances are being turned away. The medical community, already burdened beyond all human expectation, has nothing to look forward to but more of the same.
“At Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center,” reports The Los Angeles Times, “the breaking point came Sunday night. There was not one available bed for at least 30 patients who needed intensive or intermediate levels of care, and the hospital had to shut its doors to all ambulance traffic for 12 hours. Some patients, including the very sick who required intensive oxygen, experienced wait times as long as 18 hours to get into the intensive care unit.”
As all of this is unfolding, the president of the United States has once again asked the Supreme Court to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Wisconsin (I think Trump has lost that state at least five times by now), and is plotting with allies to turn the January 6 Electoral College certification on Capitol Hill into a circus sideshow.
Meanwhile, the nation burns on a bed of COVID coals as B.1.1.7 threatens to add fuel to the fire. No words from Trump on the pandemic, no action whatsoever, and his much-ballyhooed vaccine disbursement program has all but ground to a halt. It is so bad that President-elect Joe Biden was compelled to castigate the administration for its ongoing folly.
“Here, right here, is what happens when a pandemic is allowed to run wild,” I wrote on Christmas Day. “Will the new vaccines work on these new strains? Yes, but to a now-uncertain degree, and with an enormous caveat: The more this virus is allowed to wildfire its way through the populace, the more likely it is to mutate, and one of those mutations may wind up being resistant to the vaccine.”
This is an exhausted nation, with three weeks left to go before this reckless and utterly disinterested administration is scooped up by the garbage collectors. Three weeks for this new strain to take hold, if it hasn’t already.
One infectious disease specialist, Dr. Peter Hotez, recently told the Houston station KHOU that the variant “may already be here and it may be a significant reason why we’ve seen so much transmission as of late,” adding that the U.S. has not been looking for new strains as much as it should.
Three weeks before anyone in the federal government will do anything about it besides plot, sneer and send out resumes.
At least for now, as the void of federal leadership continues, we are largely on our own, and the best way for us to deal with this new variant is to muscle up on all of the things we have been doing (or should have been doing) all along: wearing masks, staying home when possible, washing hands, using hand sanitizer, and self-quarantining when sick or after a potential exposure to the virus. Stay home on New Year’s Eve if you can; next year will be a new year, too.
It seems 2020 is not yet finished with us.