Responding to

"A point of view can be a dangerous luxury
when substituted for insight and understanding."

Marshall McLuhan
As more and more people are signing up for vaccination against the coronavirus, some of us are wondering if the vaccines will even be effective against the new strains of the virus we're hearing about. As this article from ABC News suggests, however, "there's no strong, solid evidence to date demonstrating that these variants are more deadly or resistant to current vaccines." And, since the variants are making headlines, it seemed reasonable to summarize what's known.

As of this writing, there are seven new variants, or strains, of the coronavirus that are getting the most attention.

The UK variant was one of the first identified, estimated to have shown up in September. It quickly gained a foothold throughout Great Britain and then spread to other parts of the world. At least 293 cases have been reported in the US, according to the CDC, which said the actual tally probably exceeds that number.

A South Africa variant was discovered in October. It shares some of the mutations of the UK variant, but it developed independently and has spread to neighboring countries as well as a few countries off the continent, including the US. Two cases were discovered in South Carolina last Thursday. It appears to be more transmissible and early findings indicate that current vaccines could have slightly diminished efficacy.

Two variants have been detected in Brazil, one of which appears to be the major strain spreading throughout the country. Scientists are studying whether it might be able to escape a person's natural immunities after they've recovered from a COVID-19 infection, leaving them vulnerable to reinfection. They stress, however, that current vaccines should remain effective.

Finally, three variants have developed in the US, the first of which was found in the Midwest. It was traced back to a patient sample from May and has spread throughout much of the country. Little is known about this variant, but some researchers believe it could be more transmissible. Current vaccines should still work, however. Two California variants were identified several weeks ago. The San Francisco Bay Area variant is believed to be the culprit of multiple large outbreaks throughout the Bay Area. A Southern California variant first appeared in July and is now the predominant strain in the region. Experts still aren't sure if the California strains are more transmissible or even if they're responsible for the severity of the pandemic in California.

Researchers and scientists expected the virus to mutate. All viruses do. Sometimes it's because of errors made in the virus' genetic code when it replicates. Sometimes it's in response to changes in its environment. There are other reasons. It's why seasonal flu vaccines are typically only 60% effective. Nevertheless, mutations were expected and now the task is to understand how those mutations affect transmissibility, severity of disease, and the variants' sensitivity to vaccines.

Public health experts stress that it's still wise to be vaccinated against COVID-19. "If you get a certain mutation, it's possible the level of [the vaccine's] efficacy could decline a little bit," suggests Deborah Fuller, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "But with some of these vaccines being above 90% effectiveness, the expectation is that, in a worst case scenario, [effectiveness] might drop to 85%, which is still very effective." Even the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which uses a single shot and has an overall effectiveness of 72%, will be a significant boost to the nation's vaccination effort. It is expected to be reviewed by the FDA in the next few weeks.

More important than preventing “some aches and a sore throat,” offers Dr. Anthony Fauci, is to fend off severe disease, especially in people with underlying conditions and in older adults, who are more likely to become seriously ill. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, likened the different vaccines' ability to prevent severe disease to the effects of flu shots. They don't always prevent the flu, but they can make it less severe. “The same thing seems to be [occurring] here, in a circumstance where [a] variant is clearly making it a little tougher to get the most vigorous response. But still, for [preventing] severe disease, it’s looking really good.”

So, the bottom line message is yes, getting vaccinated makes sense even with new variants of the virus continuing to show up.
While the rollout of vaccines continues to find its footing and new strains of the coronavirus make headlines, other scientists are beginning to settle on what we can do to bring back many aspects of our previous lives, despite the pandemic’s continued spread. One set of lessons, particularly for workplaces, is that face masks, worker pods and good air flow are much more important for preventing the spread of infection than surface cleaning, temperature checks, and plexiglass barriers. And more public health experts now advocate wide use of inexpensive, rapid tests to detect cases quickly, in part because many scientists now think more than 50% of infections are transmitted by people without symptoms.

The lessons come after nearly a year of investigations on how the coronavirus spreads and affects the body. Scientists combined that information with knowledge gained from years of experience in high-risk workplaces where tiny airborne pollutants can build up and cause harm. For example, the effectiveness of plexiglass barriers can be spotty because of their impact on air flow. What they've determined is that different types of workplaces need slightly different protocols, depending on the types of interactions that occur.

One recommendation that has changed significantly is the emphasis on intense surface cleaning. Scientists have come to understand that indirect transmission through contaminated surfaces doesn't play as critical a role in the spread of COVID-19 as originally thought. More specifically, CDC guidance states that coronaviruses on surfaces and objects naturally die within hours to days. And warmer temperatures and exposure to sunlight reduce the time the virus can survive on surfaces. Normal routine cleaning with soap and water, which already removes germs and dirt from surfaces, lowers the risk of spreading COVID-19 infection as well. Regular hand washing and proper hygiene practices remain important, and they're important for a whole host of reasons that go well beyond preventing the spread of COVID-19.

An odd side effect of the scattershot approach to vaccinations is the creation of "haves" and "have nots" throughout communities - those who've received the vaccine and those who have yet to be vaccinated. Alex Tran, an emergency medicine physician in New York City who has received both doses of the vaccine commented, “What I’m waiting for is [the] CDC card that they’re giving out being accepted as a method of entry, whether that be for flights or for restaurants.” He was referring to the verification card given to people at the time they're vaccinated. “I could see a situation where a club makes it their official policy that you need to show your vaccine card.”

Hopefully, that won't be the case. The goal remains getting at least 80% of the population vaccinated or otherwise immune to the coronavirus and not to create separate classes of people. Unfortunately, that's been the result of the vaccine roll out thus far. But that's only temporary and, as the state's Department of Health refines and improves its vaccination enrollment, phasing, and messaging, I'm hopeful we'll find ourselves inching closer to a world that feels a bit more normal than it has for the past year.

Please keep doing all that you're doing to stay safe and healthy. We'll keep you as up-to-date as we can with vaccination events and other information as we learn more. With the right information, each of you can make the best decisions and every Kitchen Angels volunteer who wants to be vaccinated will be able to receive the vaccine.

I am forever grateful for all that you do.
Thank you for your vigilance. We want you to stay safe,
healthy, and informed.