As COVID-19 variants spread rapidly across the United States, Tompkins County has only seen four cases of the virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom as of Feb. 8. However, the health department remains vigilant, sequencing some COVID-19 samples for the variant and encouraging people to avoid traveling.
People are considered more at risk for COVID-19 variants if they test positive for the virus and recently traveled internationally, or were exposed to someone who tested positive and traveled recently. Cornell’s COVID-19 Testing Laboratory sequences the genomes of COVID-19 samples, Tompkins County Health Director Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said.
“We’re looking for relevant travel related to all variants that have been identified around the world at this point,” Kruppa said. “Fortunately, to date, we’ve only identified the UK variant.” Other variants identified internationally include the South Africa and Brazil variants.
While sequencing COVID-19 samples allows the health department to monitor possible changes in how infectious COVID-19 will be in Tompkins County, the variant type does not currently change what medical care someone will receive.
“Sequencing is not considered a medical test, so it doesn’t really tell us anything about the individual at this point and what it will mean to them,” Kruppa said. “It’s really just knowing what variants we have here locally.”
According to Prof. Luis Schang, microbiology and immunology, it is normal for viruses to mutate as they replicate and form new variants over time, and eventually, the distribution of COVID-19 variants may stabilize. However, this equilibrium may still change.
“This is nothing new, nothing special. Any virus walking into a new population does the same,” Schang said. “At some moment, there are going to be some [COVID-19] genomes that will be the most predominant ones in the human population. We don’t know which ones they are going to be.”
Mutations that allow spikes on COVID-19 viruses to better fit into cell receptors could increase the likelihood of infection, according to Schang. This easier fit between virus and receptor may be partially responsible for the fast spread of the UK variant, and has also emerged in the South Africa variant and others.
“Mutations that appear to be becoming more predominant include changes to the receptor binding site,” Schang said. “It appears that is having a major role in favoring entry.”
According to Schang, virus variants can become more prevalent in a variety of ways, including through superspreader events and high transmission rates. To limit the risk of more variant cases reaching Tompkins County, Kruppa suggests that people avoid all non-essential travel. If someone does travel, Kruppa recommends that they be cautious about distancing and wearing a mask while away, and follow state quarantine guidelines when they return.
For Cornell students, the travel planning process includes University regulations. Students who live in the Ithaca area this spring won’t leave until the semester ends, unless they have extenuating circumstances. Even then, students are required to apply for permission to travel, as well as quarantine and get tested when they return.
Despite changing variants, Kruppa’s recommendations remain the same: wear a mask, stay socially distanced and wash your hands. While Kruppa acknowledged many are weary of safety measures, he recommends that the best way to limit the spread of new variants is to more stringently follow the existing guidelines.
“I think folks are beginning to, and have been for a while, feel that fatigue associated with those measures that we’ve put in place and I completely understand that,” Kruppa said. “We would just encourage everyone to hang with us a bit longer.”