COVID variants hit Georgia; doctor warns of imminent spread

*(Associated Press)
Updated: Feb. 18, 2021 at 8:07 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Coastal Health District Director Dr. Lawton Davis says in just a matter of months, a coronavirus variant from the United Kingdom - also known as B.1.1.7 - could become the dominant strain in Georgia and South Carolina.

“Viruses always change,” said Dr. Davis. “That’s the reason we have to get a flu shot every year, is because the flu viruses change.”

Dr. Davis said it isn’t surprising that the coronavirus has changed. But he said what is unusual is that it has gotten stronger. Viruses typically get weaker with time. But he said these new variants are much more contagious and may even be more deadly.

“We know it’s in Lowcountry South Carolina. We know it’s in Georgia,” Dr. Davis said. “You may as well assume that it’s here, and it’s spreading.”

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, 45 people have tested positive for the U.K. variant, across 13 Georgia counties. Most of the reported cases are in the Atlanta area, with 11 confirmed cases in Fulton County. The first case was confirmed on Jan. 5. The youngest person infected is 10 years old. The oldest is 61

Dr. Davis says there’s no specific test for these variants. If you have it, you’ll still show-positive on a standard COVID-19 test. WTOC Investigates wanted to know how much the state is really testing for these variants.

The Georgia DPH said the state, in-partnership with the CDC, is only testing 100 random positive specimens a week for COVID variants. They added that the CDC’s goal is for states to test 5 percent of positive specimens for the variants. Right now, they say the U.S. is at about 1 percent.

While new variants may be spreading, Dr. Davis says the current vaccines are still effective against them. He says they were developed in a way that should still allow them to defend against different versions of the virus.

“Meaning, if the spike protein or the virus changes enough,” Dr. Davis said, “you don’t have to go back to square one.”

COVID immunity after you catch the virus has been a hot topic. The CDC does not guarantee immunity after 90 days with its guidance related to exposure. But another doctor told WTOC it is likely that antibodies last much longer than 90 days, even if they don’t show up on an antibody test. Dr. Davis agrees. But he says, with COVID, nothing is guaranteed.

“Yes, in theory, your immune system’s memory system should last longer than that,” Dr. Davis said. “But it may be that for some reason, with coronavirus, it doesn’t.”

Dr. Davis said the COVID vaccine could end up being much like the flu. That means we could be getting a COVID vaccine every six months to a year, for years to come.

“You just need to assume that it’s here, and it’s probably here to stay.”

The Georgia Department of Public Health says, while there may be new variants, guidance for treatment and prevention, is the same. They say social distancing, hand washing, and avoiding large gatherings are still critical.

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