The emerging COVID-19 variant from the United Kingdom does not appear to be more likely to kill an infected person, said Dr. Muhammed Ali, an infectious disease consultant at Penn State Health Holy Spirit in Camp Hill.
However, the new variant is at least 50 percent more contagious than previous mutations, Ali said. That means hospitals such as Holy Spirit — already seeing a crush of COVID-19 patients — could see even more in the coming weeks.
“And once you have this pressure on your health care system, where you’re already stressed and you’re seeing more patients come in, [the mortality rate] increases, because you’re not able to keep up with all these patients,” Ali said.
This poses a public health challenge that people in Pennsylvania may not be ready to meet, Ali said. COVID-19 is widespread across the commonwealth, and daily cases remain high. Ali says he expects a post-New Year’s surge, and that doesn’t factor in the emergence of the new variant.
The Pennsylvania Health Department has found only one case of the new mutation so far, in Dauphin County. About 50 cases have been identified across the U.S.
The so-called “U.K.” variant was first noticed in the south of England in December, leading British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week to order a country-wide lockdown until mid-February.
That kind of action is unlikely to happen in Pennsylvania, said Ali. He noted that efforts to contain the virus through business closures and mask mandates were met with opposition by some lawmakers and by people who ignored the orders.
Universal masking, social distancing and avoiding gatherings, especially indoor gatherings, will work to stop its spread, Ali said. The measures are doubly important to stop a variant of the virus that has a “tighter cluster” of spike proteins that make the virus easier to catch, he said.
Additionally, the COVID-19 vaccine is believed to be effective against this strain.
At York County-based WellSpan Health, spokesman Ryan Coyle said “widespread community transmission of COVID-19 continues to be a major issue across our region. That is why our guidance is unchanged: wear a mask, wash your hands, and continue to socially-distance yourself from others. The new variant of COVID-19 that has now appeared in Pennsylvania does have a greater transmission rate and therefore confirms the need for these continued safety measures until we can stop the spread of COVID-19.”
The state Health Department is following updates from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has steps in place to dial back elective procedures at hospitals to meet demand for COVID-19 patients. So far, it has not had to initiate those steps. Some hospitals have limited elective procedures on their own.
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