Health Care

Levine says new Covid strain is ‘not a reason for fear’

Mark Levine wearing mask
Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, listens to Gov. Phil Scott during a Covid-19 press conference on Dec. 22. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The new, highly transmissible variant of Covid is “really not a reason for fear,” according to Dr. Mark Levine, the state’s health commissioner. 

Levine said the fatality rate of the variant is no different from previous versions of the virus, and the new vaccine that is slowly being rolled out remains effective, he said.

But the B.1.1.7 strain “has significant health and public health implications” because it could lead to another surge in cases requiring hospitalizations, Levine said in an interview Tuesday. 

Over the weekend, a man in Saratoga Springs, New York, about an hour’s drive from Vermont, was found to have contracted the variant. He had no travel history, which means it was contracted through community transmission, Levine said. 

The health commissioner says the new strain is likely already in Vermont and is behaving much as the original virus did in March, when the state had no travel bans in place. “We don’t really have travel bans as much in place now either with regard to people coming into the country,” he said.  

“So, I think a good assumption is going to be that it is here and that it is going to spread and the Saratoga report only confirmed that even closer to home than we would have imagined,” Levine said. “If it’s in Saratoga and the person has no idea where they could have gotten it, then it’s in their community, which just confirms the suspicions that it’s probably been here longer than people realize.”

Officials have not detected cases of B.1.1.7 in Vermont in part because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will allow only a minute number of samples — 20 at a time every two weeks — from Vermont for whole genome sequencing identification of B.1.1.7, he said. 

The state has considered increasing surveillance for the variant by partnering with the UVM Medical Center or sending samples to a commercial lab. Those options “are not ready for prime time today,” Levine said, but there are “ongoing discussions about working together. And really, assessing what our needs are, to make that happen.”

But there is no reason to “panic” about the rapid transmission of the new variant in other places, Levine said.  

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“There’s really nothing unusual to do with this strain compared to what we’ve been living with,” Levine said. “You still have to do all of the usual mitigation strategies. None of that goes away, nor are there new ones yet that we need to invoke if people are all doing what they should be doing anyway.”

Elsewhere, the advent of B.1.1.7 has caused alarm. The mutated virus has quickly spread from the United Kingdom to a dozen other countries in just three weeks. Cases of the Covid variant identified on Dec. 21 led to a lockdown of the U.K. just before Christmas. It was first detected in the United States on Dec. 30 in Colorado. Since then, the states of Connecticut, Georgia, Colorado, California, Florida and New York have all reported cases of B.1.1.7. 

The Connecticut cases, the first in New England, were reported Thursday, according to a press release from Gov. Ned Lamont’s office. Both people are from New Haven County, and both had traveled outside of Connecticut, one to New York, the other to Ireland, before developing symptoms earlier this month.

The Atlantic calls the mutated virus “a ticking time bomb.” That’s because the higher transmissibility rates can increase the baseline number of cases very quickly, leading to surges that can overwhelm a health care system. 

Scientists also say the new variant is not only highly contagious, but also likely to become the dominant strain of Covid. The virus has changed 17 times since it first was transmitted from bats to humans in a Wuhan, China, wet market. The transmissibility rate of B.1.1.7 is 56% to 70% more contagious than previous versions, according to a Washington Post report. 

Vermont continues to be an “island” in the region, where cases have surged 20% regionwide in the past seven days, according to a Vermont Department of Financial Regulation analysis. New York, Connecticut, Quebec and Connecticut account for most of the increases. 

The rolling seven-day average positivity rate in Vermont is now 2.68%, the highest level since the onset of the coronavirus in mid-March. The state is reporting about 100 new cases per day, though that jumped to 214 on Thursday. Thirty-six people were hospitalized with confirmed cases, including eight in intensive care. Three more were suspected of having Covid.  

At least three of those measures would need to “go in the wrong direction for us to probably do a significant policy change,” Levine said. “That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t nudge something here or there on the way.”

Vermont’s recent surge is relatively small compared with other states, Levine says. Vermont remains in the yellow or orange zone on national Covid trackers (most states are red). He is optimistic that Vermonters will continue to follow state guidelines, and those precautions will prevent a surge in baseline cases that could lead to a significant increase in cases similar to what New Hampshire is seeing now. 

Levine “didn’t want to put a number on it.” But hypothetically, the threshold for a lockdown in Vermont would be “several hundred” more new cases a day, a significant percentage change in the growth in cases and a bump in positivity rates. 

“We really try not to use numbers because we try to use the combination of different metrics going in the wrong direction,” he said. 

The previously established metrics were a positivity rate above 5%; sustained growth in cases; a high rate of people visiting doctors with Covid symptoms; and Less than 30% capacity in the ICU.

“You know we’re trying to figure out right now what we’re facing,” Levine said. “I won’t call it a third wave, but we’re facing a post-holiday spike in cases and we certainly don’t have evidence that it’s been dramatic.

“If we were to develop a so-called third wave, we will be starting at a much better baseline,” Levine said. “We’re nowhere close to even having overwhelmed the capacity of the health care system.”

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He said the state can “maintain our posture with the strategies we’ve used” without having to shut down schools and businesses. 

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Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor of VTDigger and the executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 25. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

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