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Data points to vaccine working against COVID-19 variant

CORONAVIRUS VARIANT lettering, on texture, finished graphic (Source: AP)
CORONAVIRUS VARIANT lettering, on texture, finished graphic (Source: AP)(AP)
Published: Jan. 22, 2021 at 5:43 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Reports of a new, possibly more contagious variant of COVID-19 was discovered in the United Kingdom. Now it’s in the United States, but health care providers in Alaska still haven’t seen any cases yet.

The vaccine appears to still be the best bet to stop the spread of the virus, as early studies show the vaccine likely still works to protect against the variant.

The variant is not a completely new disease, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Administrator Dr. Bob Onders. It’s the same virus, with little adaptations. Those little adaptations can have big impacts.

“Those minor changes may alter the contagiousness in some manner. Other respiratory viruses, we see a major change. Where that change may require — long term — a different immunization. Right now, it appears that the vaccinations are effective against this new strain as well,” Onders said.

What we know about COVID-19 can change fast, infectious disease physician Dr. Benjamin Westley says.

“Most of us in the infectious disease community are relatively confident that these variants, some of them are more contagious and spread more easily. So it’s all the more reason to continue wearing masks and social distancing,” he said. “Most of us still think the vaccine is going to work well, and so the concern for that is somewhat less, but not entirely removed because these things are changing quickly.”

Onders described people’s behaviors during the pandemic as everyone having a “risk budget,” meaning decisions and the possible consequences all take from that budget.

The vaccine can increase one’s risk budget the way Onders put it. The variant could have some big impacts on everyone’s risk budget.

“The vaccine does not make it indefinite. It may increase your risk budget a little bit in some manner, but it doesn’t make it unlimited,” Onders said. “The variant may change our behaviors because that may shrink our risk budget.”

He said right now, air travel has become relatively safe with the mitigation techniques in place, but if a more contagious variant starts driving cases up more, and faster, that could change.

What these doctors and health leaders around the world know based on hard data is that masks and social distancing help drive down case numbers. They say everyone should remain vigilant.

Onders pointed out that the second year of the Spanish Flu in 1918, which decimated Alaskans, was worse than the first year. He hopes we can learn from history.

“This is actually the time we really need to remind ourselves that we have to hunker down a little bit more,” Westley said. “We keep saying that but it’s 100% true.”

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