Alaska has yet to detect a new, highly contagious variant of the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean the strain isn’t already here, state health officials said.
Federal health officials have warned that the ultra-contagious strain could become the dominant variant of the virus within the U.S. by March, based on new modeling from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new strain, which was originally identified in the United Kingdom, hadn’t been detected in Alaska as of Saturday, according to state health officials.
Researchers estimate that the U.K. variant spreads about 50% more between people compared with the more common strain. That means someone infected with the variant has a higher likelihood of spreading it to someone else close by.
“What does this mean in terms of mitigation strategies?” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin asked on a recent call with reporters. “Basically, what it means is people just need to remain vigilant.”
Just because officials haven’t identified new, emerging strains in Alaska yet “doesn’t mean that, for example, the U.K. strain is not here yet,” McLaughlin said. “It could be here; we just haven’t detected it yet.”
Existing health practices — mask-wearing, hand-washing and staying 6 feet from others — are super important, he said. If the U.K. strain is circulating in Alaska and people forget to follow those measures or stop altogether, there’s a much bigger chance that the virus could hop to someone else within range, he said.
Scientists don’t think that the new strain can make someone sicker, but there’s a ripple effect if greater transmission of the virus occurs within the community. More COVID-19 cases can drive up the number of people seeking medical care. That, in turn, can strain the health care system and lead to more deaths.
While it’s good that Alaska’s COVID-19 cases have recently decreased compared with previous months, it’s still possible that the new variant could drive up those numbers once again, Lorne Carroll, a public health nurse in Homer, said recently.
“We should all assume that these variants are circulating pretty broadly in the United States,” Jayme Parker, chief of the section of public health labs, said last week.
The state of Alaska has been sequencing COVID-19 cases since March, which is a way to look for the new variants. But now, the state is trying to ramp up its search, Parker said. The state lab is trying to join forces with university scientists in Anchorage and Fairbanks in order to increase capacity.
The United Kingdom has sequenced around 5% to 6% of its cases, Parker said. That’s still fairly low, but the process is both expensive and laborious. In the U.S., there isn’t as much visibility on which variants may be circulating here because less than half of 1% of cases have been sequenced.
But in Alaska, roughly 4% to 5% of cases have been sequenced, Parker said. That puts Alaska on par with the U.K.’s sequencing efforts and more than four times ahead of what the country is doing nationally.
Lisa Smith, who oversees the sequencing department at the state virology lab in Fairbanks, said the specimens they sequence only come from state public health labs in Anchorage and Fairbanks — which test roughly a third of all samples getting collected in the state. But, Smith said, even among those samples, they put an emphasis on choosing specimens from across Alaska, as a way to know what’s circulating in different corners of the state.
Parker, with the state public health labs, emphasized that while scientists expect the coronavirus to continue producing new variants, the same strategies that worked originally to stop virus spread will continue to do so. That’s why it’s important, she said, to keep wearing masks, physically distancing and continue good hand washing.