COVID-19 Part Two? Local Experts Weigh in on New COVID Strain’s Potential Impact in the Black Community

Joneigh Khaldun, left, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Patricia Wilkerson-Uddyback, top right, vice president for Academic and Community Affairs at Detroit Medical Center, and Dr. Matt Sims, M.D., Ph.D., director, Infectious Diseases Research, Beaumont Health, discuss the new COVID-19 strain.

Photos provided by Beaumont Health, MDHHS Office, and DMC.

 

When it comes to the devastating effects that COVID-19 brought upon the Black community, it is easy for many to wonder how will we fare with the new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7?

 

B.1.1.7. is believed to be more contagious, but there’s no indication that it impacts the clinical outcomes or disease severity compared to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has been circulating across the United States for months. The first Michigan case of the new COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.7. was identified as an adult female living in Washtenaw County by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Bureau of Laboratories last week. According to a press release, the woman recently traveled to the United Kingdom where this variant originated.

 

There is a higher rate of transmission that could increase the number of people who need to be hospitalized or who lose their lives to COVID-19 if the new variant begins circulating widely in Michigan. To date, the virus was identified in at least 16 other states and jurisdictions in the U.S.

 

Local medical experts shared their thoughts on this new strain.

 

“The discovery of this variant in Michigan is concerning, but not unexpected,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS.

 

Based on available evidence, current tests and vaccines for COVID-19 also work against this new variant. Protective actions that prevent the spread of COVID-19 will also prevent the spread of the new variant. Michiganders should:

 

●      Get vaccinated for COVID-19

●      Wear a mask around others

●      Stay six feet apart from others

●      Wash hands often

●      Ventilate indoor spaces

 

California on December 30 announced the nation’s second confirmed case of the new and reportedly more contagious strain, offering a strong notion that the infection is spreading more widely in the United States, according to an article from the Associated Press. The announcement came 24 hours after there was a first reported U.S. variant infection which occurred in Colorado.

 

That person was identified as a Colorado National Guardsman who helped out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak, according to the article.

 

“The virus is becoming more fit, and we’re like a deer in the headlights,” warned Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute, in the published report. He noted that the U.S. does not do a lot of genetic sequencing of virus samples to discover variants, and that’s why they were probably slower to detect this new mutation.

 

The discovery of the new virus strain in Colorado has added urgency to the nation’s vaccination drive against COVID-19, which has killed over 400,000 people in the U.S.

In a follow-up interview, Khaldun spoke to The Michigan Chronicle about the new strain.

 

“Our MDHHS is looking at DNA, the samples that have come into our lab,” she said of the work they’ve done for the past 10 months.

 

Khaldun added that there is no evidence that the vaccine would be ineffective protection against the new COVID-19 strain.

 

Khaldun added that it’s evident that more minority populations have been impacted by the COVID-19 virus because some in these populations are more at risk due to underlying medical conditions in addition to having fewer resources such as access to health care.

 

She added that she is looking to vaccinate as “many people as possible as quickly as possible” and work around any skepticism and hesitancy in the minority population when receiving the vaccines.

 

“The most important thing we should all be doing is preventing the spread,” she said.

 

Patricia Wilkerson-Uddyback, vice president for Academic and Community Affairs at Detroit Medical Center, [DMC], echoed Khaldun’s thoughts and told The Michigan Chronicle that the Black community can expect some effects of the new strain.

 

“We are certainly expecting the new strain will impact us like the first strain did because of the underlying comorbidities that exist in our community and gaps in place and other variables that played into the first strain … because that hasn’t gone away,” Wilkerson-Uddyback said.

 

Wilkerson-Uddyback added that she is also encouraging the Black community to look to the new vaccine as a helpful cure toward the new variant. Also, the potential vaccine reactions from others won’t necessarily be another person’s experience.

 

“I am encouraging everybody, do not wait. This is not that time that we want to be on the back end of this solution,” Wilkerson-Uddyback, who was vaccinated, said.

 

Dr. Matt Sims, M.D., Ph.D., director of Infectious Diseases Research at Beaumont Health, said that there is still a lot to be learned about the new strain.

 

“Viruses, especially types of viruses mutate all the time,” Sims said. “Anything that has DNA or RNA [single-stranded molecule] is subject to mutation. That is how evolution happened.”

 

Sims said that similar to HIV, it can show up in one person a certain way and there can be different symptoms in someone else.

 

Sims added that even a year after the COVID-19 pandemic, new things are being learned daily about it. Also, the new variant doesn’t seem to have a higher mortality rate. He did say, however, that if a lot more people could get infected at the same time it could “overwhelm hospitals and increase mortality.”

 

“[There is] not much you can do about that,” Sims said adding that there are multiple factors involved in the new strain impacting a community and not one single factor.

 

Sims added that he did a study last April through Beaumont about potential COVID-19 infection rates in Beaumont employees. Their antibodies were checked to see if they were exposed to COVID-19. Sims said that some interesting data cropped up in the study involving Black employees.

 

He said that of the six percent of Black employees tested, they represented almost 20 percent of those testing positive for COVID-19.

 

“All the other races were 12 percent or lower,” Sims said. “We’re not sure the cause of that. It could be social; it could have to do with living circumstances. It could have to do with public transportation.”

 

Sims added that while Blacks in the Beaumont study had higher COVID-19 positivity rates, they were more likely to be asymptomatic.

 

He added that out of all the Black people who were positive in the study almost 60 percent of them were asymptomatic. White people were a little over 40 percent asymptomatic; Asians were over 40 percent asymptomatic; Hispanics were over 35 percent asymptomatic.

 

“This was at the beginning of the pandemic. If this holds true to the new strain, we might even see a bigger scale,” he said of asymptomatic rates. “I don’t have any answers as to why we can make models … and guesses for this. To me, it’s a little bit of a mystery.”

 

For more information on the study, search “Dr. Sims Beaumont serological testing” online or visit https://www.beaumont.org/.

 

Find out more information at Michigan.gov/Coronavirus and CDC.gov/Coronavirus.

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