Epidemiologist says vaccinations are key in preventing spread of more contagious COVID variants

Posted at 11:29 PM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 07:06:37-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- As COVID cases trended down and vaccinations trend up across the state, health officials warned of a new, more contagious strain, likely spreading within the population.

On Monday, the Virginia Department of Health announced the first case of the B.1.351 COVID-19 variant identified in a Central Virginia resident who had not been traveling. That brought the total number of known cases in the state to 11.

"It’s not surprising that we found a case here. We likely will find more cases," said Rebekah Butterfield, an epidemiologist with the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts.

The B.1.351 strain first emerged in South Africa in late 2020, and like the B.1.1.7 variant (also referred to as the United Kingdom (U.K.) variant), was associated with increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.

However, Butterfield said there was no evidence this variant would cause more severe illness, and for those who are continuing to mask and distance, she said it shouldn’t change the way you live your life.

"Those regular things that you're already doing are still fully effective against these variants," said Butterfield.

If anything, Butterfield said this further emphasized the need for continued vaccination -- which was shown to be effective against these strains.

"With every vaccination, and with every person adhering to mitigation measures, we're reducing the risk of seeing more variants and reducing the risk of seeing these variants spread significantly throughout our state," Butterfield said.

She added that clinical trials for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were held in South Africa where some of these variants were actively circulating.

"And so the results that we get for the Johnson and Johnson efficacy are actually in the face of those variants. And the results are still really good," Butterfield said. "We're still seeing up to 72% efficacy at preventing symptomatic illness, and 100% efficacy so far at preventing severe COVID and death."

VDH also noted there is a total of 31 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in the state.

Health officials expected the number of B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 cases to grow -- but said it would take a lot more mutations for the vaccine to become ineffective.