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Vaccines and Variants

Tips from a COVID-19 Case Investigator

By LINDSEY FENNER

As I’m writing this in early February, COVID-19 news has seen rapid developments: hopeful, frustrating, and uncertain. The two biggest uncertainties have been how to get a vaccine and understanding how the different COVID variants will impact the pandemic in Minnesota.

First vaccines.

Vaccines are now being distributed a variety of ways: healthcare systems, community health centers, some pharmacies, and the State of MN Community Vaccination program. As of February 10, vaccines are still limited to high risk/ high priority groups, such as those 65 and older, or those who work and live in high-risk settings. 

I am very hopeful that much more vaccine will be available soon, but right now there just isn’t enough vaccine for everyone who wants a shot. I know this is frustrating, but please don’t give up on getting your vaccine! Although I will be absolutely thrilled to get my vaccine when my time comes, it is understandable to have questions about these new vaccines. I encourage everyone to reach out to healthcare providers, visit the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) vaccine website https://mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/, call the MDH COVID hotline at 651-297-1304, or talk to trusted community groups and experts about your questions or concerns. You can read more about vaccines on the alley Back Page.

Variants. The more viruses spread and replicate, the more they start to develop mutations or changes. Some of these changes give an advantage to the virus over their human hosts, making these new versions “variants of concern.”   

As of early February, two different COVID variants of concern have been detected in Minnesota: B.1.1.7 (first seen in the UK), and P.1 (first seen in Manaus, Brazil). We are still learning about these variants, but from what we know from data from the UK and Europe, B.1.1.7 seems to be about 50% more transmissible, which means it is easier to catch from someone else. We know less about P.1, but scientists are concerned by early evidence that suggests this variant may be able to evade immunity, potentially making re-infection more likely.

These variants are detected in the US through what is called “surveillance testing,” where random test samples are selected to have “whole genome sequencing.” This means they look at the virus’ entire genetic code to see which variant it matches. 

In Minnesota, when these variants of concern are detected, MDH re-interviews those people to get more epidemiologic information about how they may have acquired these variations of the virus. From these interviews, it seems that there is already community spread of B.1.1.7 in MN. The two cases of P.1 detected in MN as of early February were both associated with travel to Brazil. 

However, right now in the US, we don’t sequence enough of these random samples to get a clear picture of how widely these variants are truly spreading. It is important that we all do everything we can to minimize the spread of these variants as we work to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

What you can do:

All of the COVID precautions we have been taking will still help reduce the risk of getting these variants. But I know we’ve all been doing this a long time, and we’re all sick of it, so some reminders:

  • Wear a mask, especially indoors. It is important that you have a mask that fits well! 
  • Avoid the three Cs: Crowded Places, Close-contact settings, and Confined and enclosed places
  • Avoid unnecessary travel. I know it has been a long pandemic winter, but the less we travel, the less we move these variants arounds.

I can’t predict what March will look like for COVID-19 in Minnesota. But I do know that no matter what uncertainties we face with vaccines or variants, spring is on its way!

Lindsey lives in East Phillips and has been working a COVID response reassignment in local public health since May 2020. Can that really be almost a year?! Her opinions are her own.

State of Minnesota COVID-19 Helpline:

For questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, call 651-297-1304 or 1-800-657-3504
Mon.-Fri.: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Mental Health Crisis Line – Call: **CRISIS (**274747)

COVID Community Coordinators:

Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES): 651-768-0000, Monday – Friday 8:30 am to 5pm; Saturday 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, Spanish

Cultural Wellness Center: 612-249-9528, Monday – Friday 24 hours; On call weekends; English

Division of Indian Work: 651-304-9986, Monday – Friday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm: English

WellShare International: 612-254-7308 (Somali/English), 651-318-0051 (Spanish), 763-312-6362 (Oromo), Monday – Friday 8:00 am to 8:00 pm; On call evenings/weekends: English, Oromo, Spanish, Somali

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