Local officials have identified a new and more infectious strain of COVID-19 has arrived in Dane County.
UHS Executive Director Jake Baggott emailed the UW-Madison student body Friday revealing the strain’s appearance in the county comes at the same time that approximately 200 students tested positive for COVID-19 in a two day span.
The new strain, known as the B.1.1.7. variant of COVID-19, gained prevalence and media notoriety when it triggered a large and rapid outbreak in London in December of 2020.
“This B.1.1.7. variant was observed in a matter of just months,” Ajay Sethi, Associate Professor of Population Health Science at UW, said. “As they were sequencing the viruses, they discovered that this particular strain seemed to kind of just take over, out-competing the existing strains that had been circulating.”
According to the CDC, a mutation in the virus’ spike protein causes the B.1.1.7.strain to have higher rates of transmission and also may make the virus more lethal. Currently employed vaccines are still effective at combating this strain, local officials have said.
The extent to which this particular strain of COVID-19 has spread in Dane County is currently unknown and efforts to track B.1.1.7. are too resource-intensive for medical staff to ascertain a full picture, according to local experts.
“No one has the capacity right now to sequence every virus from every person that's infected or even from a large number,” said Dr. David Andes, a professor and researcher at UW- Madison. “We don't know how prevalent it is here in Dane County. We know it's here, we know there's likely more of it than we've detected. Everyone's concerned that it will become the predominant virus because of the characteristics that had been attributed to the virus.”
Sethi stated that Dane County residents can expect to see a rise in cases involving B.1.1.7. in the coming weeks.
“Modeling says it is that, in the United States, we'll get more of this UK variant spreading in about a month or so,” Sethi stated.
In a statement to the Cardinal, DHS official Dr. Ryan Westergaard commented on the virus’ predicted spread in Dane county and to the greater Wisconsin area.
“The fact that we’ve found this variant in multiple counties here in Wisconsin among people who have not had international travel gives us a reasonable amount of certainty that this is spreading in the community from person to person, and we should use that as an indicator that we should step up our effort,” said Westergaard.
Westergaard also encouraged the continued adherence to pre-existing COVID-19 guidelines, stressing strategies such as social distancing and the usage of masks while in public areas.
“That doesn’t mean we should change our strategy. All the strategies about preventing person to person transmission and the importance of vaccinations still apply,” Westergaard said. “This calls for more intensive application of the tools that we have, but this is the same virus and the same vaccines will work.”
Despite the arrival of the B.1.1.7., both Sethi and Andes remain optimistic about the battle against COVID-19, especially in Dane County.
“Things are improving,” Andes said. “The number of patients that we have in the hospital, which COVID is very much smaller than it was a couple months ago. I actually was on CNN talking about this at that time and it was when we were bursting at the seams we didn't have places to put patients, anywhere. Now, we do.”