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Talk To Us: COVID Questions


BPR is answering listener queries about the Coronavirus in a new segment –Talk to Us: COVID Questions.  BPR’s Helen Chickering brings us this week’s answer.   

This week's question comes from Dr. Penny Brewster  of Franklin.

“I am trying to find out how prevalent the  COVID-19 variants are in western NC.”  (She was also interested in  the amount of sequencing being done for variants, and about effectiveness of the existing vaccines.)    

Good question. To find an answer,  we checked in with several sources including the NC Department of Health and Human Services Office of Communications where Catie Armstrong writes:

VARIANT SEQUENCING/PREVALENCE  “As part of increased national surveillance efforts, the NC State Laboratory of Public Health (SLPH) submits 16 positive specimens each week to CDC’s National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program. SLPH can also submit additional positive samples each week from vaccine breakthrough cases (someone testing positive at least 14 days after completing vaccination) and from other situations where variants of concern are suspected. The specimens submitted by SLPH are evaluated by CDC and results are reported to DHHS.”

“Commercial labs, such as LabCorp and Helix, evaluate their own specimens under a contract with CDC then report those sequencing results to CDC, who shares them with DHHS. North Carolina is working to streamline the data from all sequencing efforts as well as enhance local/regional sequencing to enrich the geographic, demographic, clinical presentation, and outbreak associated diversity of samples sequenced within the state.”

 Armstrong notes that that currently, the COVID-19 variant information is not yet available on a regional level, but is posted by state  on the CDC website.

We also checked in with Henderson County Health Director Steve Smith who had this to say about variants in NC.   

“COVID-19 variants are an evolving concern with the current pandemic, but I hope people won’t become distracted by the prevalence of these new strains in any particular jurisdiction, “ says Smith.          

Credit Henderson County Department of Public Health
Henderson County Health Director, Steve Smith

“In North Carolina to date, we know that a little over 200 variant cases have been identified with the U.K. variant being the dominant type. That number probably does not capture the full extent of variants present since testing levels have dropped in recent weeks. Variants do seem to consistently have higher transmission rates and at times, may generate higher levels of sickness or morbidity. There are competing perspectives about higher mortality given the particular variant and types of populations that are affected.”

“We already know that variants will continue to spread in the United States and North Carolina and that they will become a larger portion of cases in the future much like the trends that have already been evidenced in other parts of the world. Regardless of the COVID-19 variant, continued protective measures including vaccinations and face coverings are still the most effective means of protecting yourself. “

Catie Armstrong had this to add about recent variant testing and the effectiveness of vaccines.

RECENT SURVEILLANCE/VACCINES “Based on data from CDC and their contracted labs from a small subset of submitted specimens, the B.1.1.7 variant strain accounted for 8.3% of positive samples from specimens collected in North Carolina during the 4-week period ending March 13, 2021. This was reflected in the most recent update on the CDC site. We are continuing to see this proportion rise – it was only 1.3% for the 4-week period ending February 27, 2021. At this time, this information is not available at the regional or county level.”

“We are still working to learn more about new COVID-19 variants and their effects on vaccines, but studies suggest that the vaccines do provide protection against the most common variants of concern. More information can be found on the CDC website as well.”

Do you have a COVID question? You'd like answered record a voice memo and send it to voices@bpr.org or use the talk to us feature on the free BPR mobile app. 

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.