The below article was written by CalMatters. CalMatters COVID-19 coverage, translation and distribution is supported by generous grants from the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation and the California Health Care Foundation.

As California continues to ride its worst wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials have more unsettling news: Six cases of a worrisome, potentially more infectious new coronavirus variant have been detected in California. 

The new strain, first detected in the United Kingdom, also has been seen in Colorado and Florida and 33 other countries.  San Diego County reported it had identified the new variant, called B.1.1.7, in a 30-year-old man with no travel history. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the discovery in a live streamed event with Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading national voice in the pandemic. Over the weekend, San Diego county health officials reported three additional cases.

Fauci said this news was expected, since international travel is ongoing and viruses generally mutate. “RNA viruses, they make a living out of mutating,” he said. “The more you replicate the more you mutate.”

However, the lack of travel history in the San Diego case is an indicator that the new form of the virus is circulating among the community, health officials there said. By today, the number of cases with the new variant had grown to six – four in San Diego, with one hospitalized, and two in San Bernardino, the governor announced.

“What’s really important is that detecting this lineage here doesn’t really change what we need to do other than we need to do it better,” Dr. Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease and genomics expert at Scripps Research in San Diego, said in a news conference. That includes wearing masks and maintaining social distance. 

Here’s what Californians need to know about the new coronavirus strain.

 

How Was it Discovered?

The new virus variant was first reported by England’s public health agency following a surge of cases in the southeastern part of the country. The first two samples were discovered in Kent and in London in September. While mutations in viruses are common, this particular strain stood out because it carries more genetic changes than is typical, according to researchers.

 

What’s the Concern with This Coronavirus Variant?

Public health officials say the new strain seems to be more easily transmitted than the standard form of the virus. This means people who are exposed are more likely to become infected. 

According to health officials in the United Kingdom, evidence shows that infection is growing more rapidly in geographical areas where this variant is found. A study from The Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases in London shows this particular strain is 56% more transmissible. The study is still being peer-reviewed.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health secretary, explained it like this in a recent news conference: “For COVID to enter a human cell, it needs to bind to a receptor, a sort of front door on a human cell,” he said. “And the new, mutated COVID virus seems to bind a little tighter, a little more easily and enter the cell of the human body easier than our current COVID virus.”

It remains unclear how this mutant form of the virus has contributed to the current surge in California. Officials have said its prevalence here is still likely low. On Dec. 21, Ghaly said that California had been checking thousands of specimens daily over the last month, looking for mutations.

“We’re concerned because of the unknowns,” Ghaly said. “We’re concerned that we aren’t sure how this impacts the broadscale efforts to contain and mitigate the virus as it exists now.”

 

What is California Doing in Response?

The California Department of Public Health said health care providers are collecting specimens for genetic sequencing, and the state is analyzing samples suspected of being variant strains.

“As variants and mutations are found, that information is used to inform public health decisions and critical information is shared with the public,” the department said in an email.

 

How Widespread is the New Strain?

After the new variant was detected in the United Kingdom, some 40 countries restricted travel from the UK. The variant has since been reported in France, Japan, Spain, Sweden and Canada among other countries. 

The first known U.S. case, in a Colorado National Guardsman in his 20s, was reported Dec. 30. 

Two variants that share some mutations with the UK variant also have been reported in South Africa and Nigeria, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“We know there’s more. We don’t know how many,” said Andersen, the infectious disease expert in San Diego. “It’s prevalence for now is relatively low.”

 

Will it Make Me More Sick?

Right now, there’s no evidence that this new COVID variant has a higher fatality rate or causes more severe illness than the currently predominant strain, according to the CDC. A recent UK government study compared patients infected with the new variant to those with the predominant strain and found no statistically significant differences in severity of illness, deaths or reinfection. Scientists around the world are still studying the UK variant, however, and more answers may come soon.

 

Will Currently Authorized Vaccines 

Protect Against This New Strain?

Scientists believe they will. Fauci told Newsom last week that the variant “doesn’t seem to evade the protection that’s afforded by the antibodies that are induced by vaccines.” But scientists are testing the variant against the currently authorized vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

The CEO of AstraZeneca, which is developing another COVID-19 vaccine candidate, told the London Times that the company’s scientists believe the vaccine will protect against the new variant. But some scientists believe it’s possible that the UK variant, or future variants, may prove tougher for vaccines to overcome.

 

 

[AOA:  Below are some frequently asked questions about COVID-19 from the Department of Employment and Fair Housing of California. 

 

  • Do housing providers have to make repairs to a tenant’s unit during the COVID-19 pandemic?  Yes, housing providers must comply with the Health and Safety Code to ensure rental units comply with the law. However, housing providers should use judgment and follow public health orders and recommendations in making repairs to protect their employees and tenants from exposure to COVID-19. Tenants must follow public health orders and recommendations, including those to maintain physical distancing, when cooperating with the housing provider during repairs. 
  • During a pandemic, may a housing provider close recreational facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19?  Yes, housing providers should follow local, state, and federal public health orders and recommendations, which may require the closing of recreational facilities, including gyms, pools, and clubhouses, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In following such orders or recommendations, housing provider must treat all tenants in the same way. It is unlawful to grant or restrict access to facilities based on any protected status, including disability, race, national origin, or age.
  • If a tenant requests a reasonable accommodation for a pandemic-related disability, are they required to provide verification that they are disabled and that a reasonable accommodation is necessary?  Housing providers may not request additional information about an individual’s disability or need for an accommodation if the individual (or their representative) provides reliable information about the disability and how the requested accommodation is necessary.  Generally, if the need for the accommodation is not readily apparent, then the housing provider can ask for information describing the needed accommodation and how it is necessary to allow the individual equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling. This information can come from the individual or any reliable third party who is in a position to know about the individual’s disability or the need for the requested accommodation, including medical professionals, health care workers, support groups, or caregivers. In a pandemic, it is not typically practical for a tenant to provide verification of a disability and the necessity of a specific accommodation from medical professionals or health care workers who are working to address urgent patient needs. Housing providers must treat as confidential any verification information. It may not be disclosed to other tenants.
  • Must housing providers grant reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities who require in-home supportive services such as the assistance of a family member, friend, or health care provider when necessary to provide care due to the effects of COVID-19?  Housing providers must grant reasonable accommodations where necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit and public and common use areas, unless providing the requested accommodation would constitute an undue financial and administrative burden, a fundamental alteration of the program, or if allowing the accommodation would constitute a direct threat to the health and safety of others or would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others. Reasonable accommodations include changes to rules, policies, or procedures of the housing    provider where necessary to afford the tenant with the disability the equal opportunity and enjoyment of the premises. For example, it would be a reasonable accommodation for a housing provider to waive a rule against overnight guests to accommodate a tenant’s request to have a family member, friend, or health care provider stay at the rental unit to care for the tenant because of a disability related to COVID-19.

The law prohibits housing providers from making inquiries about a tenant’s actual or perceived disability.  It is unlawful under the Fair Employment and Housing Act for a housing provider to ask any tenant about the tenant’s actual or perceived disability, including a disability related to COVID-19. Similarly, a housing provider may not (1) require a tenant to move out because the housing provider believes the tenant has a disability related to COVID-19, or (2) require a tenant to show proof that their disability is unrelated to COVID-19.]