Updated at 8:03 p.m.
The Covid-19 variant known as B.1.1.7 has been detected in Burlington’s wastewater, indicating that it is likely present in the community, according to the Health Department.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in a statement Thursday that the finding represents “a new stage of the pandemic here in Vermont.”
The variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, has had health officials on high alert. It is considered more contagious than the virus that has spread during the past year, and experts have warned that this and other mutations could cause cases to surge while the Covid vaccine rollout is still in early stages.
Burlington has been monitoring wastewater for viral activity since last August. The process has been used to glean early warnings of increased Covid levels in the community. In January, the city announced it would begin testing wastewater for the B.1.1.7 strain.
The Health Department does not consider the city’s detection of the B.1.1.7 virus definitive — the presence of the variant can only be confirmed by performing genomic sampling of individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19.
Brian Lowe, who leads Burlington’s Covid-19 response, said the wastewater data indicates that currently, “a very limited number of people in the community” may have the variant. The city detected two different mutations on two different proteins, Lowe said, which is “highly indicative of the B.1.1.7 variant.”
Levine said Thursday that the finding is not a surprise. For weeks, the health commissioner has said it was only a matter of time before a variant was detected in Vermont, and that it was likely already circulating in the state.
A case was detected in Saratoga Springs, New York, in early January. The Health Department said 34 states have recorded cases.
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The likely presence of the variant should be a reminder for Vermonters to adhere closely to public health guidelines, Levine said. “It is extremely important for everyone to take every step to help prevent getting and spreading the virus, even as our vaccination efforts continue – wear your mask, keep a distance of 6 feet from each other, and absolutely avoid crowded places,” he said.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Thursday afternoon that community members must act to keep transmission down until the vaccine is more widely available.
“While there appears to be very low levels of the new variants circulating within Burlington, we have an opportunity together to heighten our community vigilance and slow the spread of this more contagious virus in the critical weeks ahead,” he said.
Levine said at a press conference last Friday that it is too early to say for certain whether the currently available vaccines are as effective on Covid variants as they are on the primary strain. However, early studies seem to indicate that the two vaccines available in Vermont, from Pfizer and Moderna, are still effective against B.1.1.7.
According to the World Health Organization, a separate strain first detected in South Africa may be more resistant to the current vaccines. Cases of that strain have been identified in South Carolina and California.
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