KDHE secretary says new COVID-19 variant not a surprise

Coronavirus COVID-19
Posted at 8:02 PM, Dec 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-29 21:02:13-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With the first reported case of a new, more infectious COVID-19 variant being detected in the United States, one Kansas health expert said it's important to note that contagiousness doesn't necessarily equate to severity of illness.

And to get a better idea on how this variant could affect the Kansas City metro's COVID-19 response, 41 Action News spoke to infectious disease expert, Dr. Lee Norman, who also is the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE).

41 Action News: What can you tell us about this new form of COVID-19?
Dr. Lee Norman: There are a couple very important things to understand. One is just because it's more infectious doesn't necessarily mean it's more severe of illness that comes from it. That's important to know. We don't know that yet for most coming out of the United Kingdom, Europe or Colorado.

Viruses do change over time. We refer to as a genetic drift. They change and they get more or less infectious more or less severe, and it's just too soon to know what this will really mean. I honestly think that we're going to look back on this particular strain and say it was probably overblown in terms of the amount of concern for it. It's a little too soon for me to hang my hat on that opinion. Right now, we'll have to watch as time goes on, and continue to do the sampling of the different viral genomes.

41: Do you know if this variant is more deadly or more mild in terms of symptoms?
LN: Viruses infectivity, or how infectious they are, does not necessarily equate to how serious or how mild they are. We don't have that information yet about this virus. It doesn't appear to be any more severe than the other strains that are out there in terms of its clinical outcomes.

41: How many strains are out there of Covid-19?
LN: In the United States, we're seeing what I would call four or five major families, if you will. If you think of genomic typing, like, there's four or five family trees. Then there's many different offspring within those many different family trees, but there's four or five major family trees at this point. I'm sure there will be more as time goes on. That's what they do.

41: Within those families, are there any differences in terms of severity or transmission?
LN: They're all pretty similar to each other. Early, early on, and this is not a surprise, we saw strains coming out of Israel, Europe and the United Kingdom. We saw strains coming out of Australia and from the west coast. Now, we're seeing more that are kind of Midwestern, from Utah to Wisconsin and points between.

It's not surprising. We're at the crossroads here in Kansas, you know I-35 and I-70 carry a lot of people, and people carry a lot of viruses, so there's a real mixing that occurs. So we're kind of getting more of a cluster within a couple of those families that I mentioned, but we just haven't seen the one that is the one who's causing the stir in the United Kingdom and in Colorado right now.

41: How often do you test COVID-19 patients for the different variants?
LN: We're going to do more of that as time goes on. We want to get over this hump and get the vaccine in people and get a little bit of breather to really understand more of that, but that research is going on globally, as well as here locally. We've got a great team working on it in Kansas. So I think we're real optimistic that it'll help us to track the virus over time.

41: What would your message be to anyone who hears about this new strain of COVID-19?
LN: I think the message is rather consistent with the message we've been giving all along, and that is the same things you do to prevent all the other families of the COVID-19 virus, the other strains, if you will. Masks, distancing, hand washing and the like, avoiding large gatherings, and that's particularly important coming into the New Year's holiday weekend.

The same things that prevent all those other strains will prevent this. There's no reason to believe otherwise. So, vigilance is important. We don't want to see a big burst in cases after the New Year's celebrations.

41: Some people are concerned about taking the vaccine right now. How does this add or diminish that concern?
LN: I think there's every reason to believe that this newer strain will be susceptible to the vaccine just like every other one.