Health Care

Burlington wastewater shows prevalence of B.1.1.7 variant; caution urged

Matt Dow, wastewater facilities manager, samples wastewater for Covid at the New North End plant in Burlington. Photo by Katya Schwenk/VTDigger

The B.1.1.7 variant of Covid-19 is now widespread in Burlington, wastewater data indicates. 

Since mid-March, more than 50% of viral RNA detected across the city’s three wastewater plants has displayed mutations associated with the B.1.1.7 variant, a more contagious strain of the virus that originated in the United Kingdom.

Local officials at a press conference Wednesday said that, while the data was not a precise measure of prevalence, it still indicated a higher risk of transmission.

“This is a particularly risky time,” Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said. “The virus remains here, remains around us and remains a threat.”

The variant, which is more transmissible and potentially more lethal than earlier versions of the coronavirus, appears to be driving up Covid-19 cases in some parts of the country. The CDC announced earlier Wednesday that the variant has become the most common strain in the U.S.

The B.1.1.7 strain was first detected in Vermont at the beginning of February. It’s no longer the only variant in the state. On Tuesday, Vermont officials announced that they had detected the P.1 variant for the first time, another highly contagious strain that originated in Brazil.

Burlington has also detected the presence of another Covid-19 mutation in its wastewater, though it remains unclear which variant the mutation indicates.

“There’s a number of possibilities around what we could have picked up,” said Brian Lowe, the city’s chief innovation officer. The mutation was not associated with the original B.1.1.7 variant, he said, but it could indicate several other strains of the virus.

“I do think the variants show why we’re seeing a spike right now in Vermont in cases,” said Stephen Leffler, president of the University of Vermont Medical Center.

“But we know how to beat this,” Leffler said. He said continued precautions — masking, social distancing and refraining from gatherings — would offer protection against the new variants.

“Little slip-ups matter more now,” he said.

At the press conference, Weinberger also addressed concerns that Burlington had allowed bars to reopen at the end of March after Gov. Phil Scott loosened restrictions on bars statewide.

Some had raised concerns that the city should have exercised more caution, particularly as cases rose among people in their 20s

Weinberger defended the decision and said he would still not impose any further restrictions on bars in the city. Bars are subject to the same capacity restrictions as restaurants, as well as a 10 p.m. curfew, which he said was sufficient. 

“This is not bars just being allowed to operate without rules in place,” Weinberger said. If the city received reports of noncompliance among establishments, he said, that could prompt the city to “change our posture.”

“We are continuing to closely monitor the situation and will reassess if the situation does change,” he said.

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Katya Schwenk

About Katya

A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger's Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat. 

Email: [email protected]

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