COVID variant in San Mateo County
Data courtesy San Mateo County

The most challenging phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Bay Area just got even more difficult. While it’s unclear just how many variant cases make up the county’s more than 34,000 cases to date, San Mateo County Health officials say they’re confident the mutations sweeping the Bay Area are here.

“Our public health team expects that these variants are in San Mateo County just as they are in the other parts of the Bay Area and across the state,” Deputy Health Chief Srija Srinivasan said at last week’s press briefing. “We remain in a period of widespread transmission.”

The variant might be partially responsible for local case spikes this winter, where case and death rates are up by about 10 times their fall rates. Up until Dec. 1, just 170 people had died all year of COVID-19 in the county. In less than two months, that number doubled to 340.

“It seems to be that it’s more infectious, but not more lethal,” El Camino Hospital Chief Medical Officer Mark Adams said at a town hall last week. “Because of that, it’s rapidly taking over the percentage of all virus out there.”

But local disease experts are struggling to understand the extent of the spread of these variants, especially as local labs operate without a coordinated effort and the funding to map them.

At one University of California, San Francisco, lab, the L452R variant made up just 4 percent of cases studied in early December, according to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle. By late December, it was up to a quarter. Scientists worry that this variant might be more transmissible, especially among asymptomatic people, and is responsible for recent outbreaks reported at Kaiser Permanente in San Jose and in Southern California.

“There's a lot more people who are not sick who can spread the virus,” Adams said. “That’s what's fueled this rapid increase in California.”

The bigger concern is whether the variant is resistant to current vaccines. At a recent Stanford Health Care event, Stanford’s Dr. Kathleen Kenny said current data indicates vaccines are still effective on the mutations, although maybe less so. Kenny also said that although the new mutations may be more contagious, current preventative measures should still be effective.

“More contagious means that if two people are in close contact and one has COVID, the non-immune person is more likely to get infected,” Kenny said. “The masks probably don't need to be 'better,' as they actually work very well. Most of the infections are not related to mask 'failure' but failure to wear masks.”

The worst-case scenario, experts say, is that the variants prolong the pandemic. The more the virus spreads, the more likely it is to continue to mutate — and the less effective our current vaccines may become. Until vaccines become widely available, the best weapon against the pandemic are safety precautions, Adams said.

“We should all be more aggressive about social distancing and mask wearing because of the new variant,” Adams said. “Until the whole pandemic is stopped, all Americans need to keep wearing masks. No matter what, we have to stop the spread.”

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