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Rising numbers of more contagious and aggressive coronavirus variants in Central Florida and throughout the U.S. have prompted a national push for increased surveillance of new infections by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as vaccinations ramp up in Central Florida where shots are now available for anyone 16 and older.
“We always ask [about variants], ‘Should we be concerned?’ I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t concerned,” said Alvina Chu, epidemiology program manager for the state Health Department in Orange County. “But concern isn’t panic. As we get the vaccines rolled out to as many people as possible, we hope people continue to practice pandemic precautions so we can contain the spread of the outbreak.”
Speaking to reporters Monday at a press briefing on the pandemic, Chu said viruses constantly change through mutation and variants were expected.
But she added, “There have been studies to show that [one strain] can be up to 50% more transmissible and also potentially pose increased severity of illness.”
Testing has found all five so-called “variants of concern” in Orange County with the B.1.1.7, first identified in the UK, the most common. Tests found 128 cases here.
“There has been a push from the federal level to increase the surveillance for these for these variants....to track what kind of changes are happening,” Chu said.
Chu said the CDC has expanded its efforts to find variant infections and identified 37 more cases in Orange County, bringing the total here to 142.
With variants looming, people should realize they need to prevent the spread of the virus through protocols or vaccination.
“We want to be careful about not allowing the virus to have this opportunity to replicate so that it can gain some kind of advantage that evades either natural immunity or the immunity induced by vaccines,” she said.
According to an advisory on the CDC website, variants such as B.1.1.7 seem to spread more easily and quickly than others, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19.
An increase in the number of cases could put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations and potentially more deaths.
Chu said COVID-19 vaccines so far have shown to be effective in preventing severe illness and death from variants.
But the CDC noted, “This is being closely investigated and more studies are underway.”
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings also said he will not rescind his order mandating facial-coverings until half the county’s 1.4 million residents are inoculated.
He said he was optimistic that could happen by June.
Demings noted county compliance teams have inspected more than 10,000 businesses and 99% are following the rules.
“It’s a rarity indeed when someone doesn’t want to follow the mandates that are in place,” he said.
About 3,600 people were vaccinated Monday at the Orange County Convention Center — and those numbers may soon soar. Chu also said the convention center site hit a milestone Monday administering its 200,000th dose of vaccine.
“This week it appears that the available inventory is going to increase significantly,” said Demings, who provided no other details. “Once we receive the doses, we have a plan of action here in Orange County, where we will use mobile pods and we’ll strategically go into communities where perhaps there’s an underserved population or...a lag with people getting vaccinated.”
He said he hoped to make an announcement by the end of the week.