COVID-19 variant means it’s time to ‘double down’ on protections, say R.I. public health leaders

MODERNA INC Vaccine arrived at Rhode Island Hospital Dec. 22, which will also help prevent the spread of a new COVID-19 variant that was recently identified in the U.S. [Above] Richard Emery, Lifespan's pharmacy supervisor and Karen Nolan, Lifespan's pharmacy manager. / LIFESPAN CORP./ BILL MURPHY
MODERNA INC. vaccine arrived at Rhode Island Hospital Dec. 22. Pictured are, from left, Richard Emery, Lifespan's pharmacy supervisor, an unidentified man and Karen Nolan, Lifespan's pharmacy manager. COURTESY LIFESPAN CORP/ BILL MURPHY

PROVIDENCE – A new variant of COVID-19 has been identified in the U.S., but officials from the R.I. Department of Health on Wednesday said it hasn’t yet made its way to the Ocean State.

The first reported U.S. case of the COVID-19 variant, which was confirmed in Colorado, has been seen throughout the United Kingdom.

“We are monitoring to determine if this strain of the virus surfaces in Rhode Island,” Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for RIDOH, told Providence Business News. “Fortunately, it has not yet.”

Wendelken said Rhode Island participates in an initiative through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to sequence SARS-CoV2 by regularly submitting positive specimens collected from Rhode Island residents.

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He said the State Health Laboratories are also currently working with Rhode Island scientists on sequencing SARS-CoV2 positive specimens at time points throughout the pandemic. While RIDOH has not identified this strain in the look back, Wendelken said that these efforts are ongoing.

The variant was found in an unidentified Colorado man in his 20s, who was reportedly isolating and did not have any recent travel history.

Dr. Megan Ranney, a Brown University professor, researcher and Lifespan Corp. emergency medicine physician, said that as soon as this new strain was made public, many of those in public health had already assumed it was in the U.S.

“It’s tough to know how [this Colorado man] got it,” said Ranney. “But it implies that there’s been community spread. He’s certainly not the first in the U.S. to get it.”

Ranney said that despite this strain not yet surfacing in Rhode Island, it serves as an indication it’s time to “double down” on public health measures. Wendelken agrees.

“The emergence of this strain is another reminder about how important our traditional prevention measures are – wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and quarantining and isolating when you have been directed to,” said Wendelken.

Dr. Selim Suner, director of Disaster Medicine and Emergency Preparedness in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Lifespan and medical director at the alternative field hospital in Providence, told PBN that “no one knows” yet if the new strain is more deadly or if it affects certain demographics differently. However, he said there is speculation that this strain may target children more.

When asked if it’s still safe for children to stay in school instead of transitioning to virtual learning because of this strain, Suner said, “It’s too early to make this determination. Children get the virus more out of school than in school.”

Both COVID-19 vaccines that are being administered in the U.S., by Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc, are not being given to children. Suner said this new strain will make it even more important to vaccinate all Americans, especially children.

“[Children] are the population that’s going to need to be vaccinated to protect everyone else,” said Suner.

Wendelken said that every indication shows that the vaccines being developed will also protect against this strain.

“But we can’t just count on a vaccine. It is going to take a number of tools to end this pandemic,” said Wendelken.

The news comes as public health officials and politicians call for a faster, and more organized, rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Earlier this week, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, publicly announced in a series of Twitter posts that he was “incredibly frustrated” by the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

“There appears to be no investment or plan in the last mile,” Jha wrote Dec. 28. “No effort from Feds to help states launch a real vaccination infrastructure. Did the Feds not know vaccines were coming? Shouldn’t planning around vaccination sites, etc. not have happened in October or November?”

Ranney said she agrees with Jha that the federal rollout of the vaccine has been slow moving.

“At this rate, it will take three years to vaccinate most adults [in the U.S.],” said Ranney, who added the state is doing a good job adjusting to supply changes and expanding on who is eligible to receive the vaccine, such as school nurses.

Rhode Island officials originally announced that they had hoped to vaccinate all residents by June. Ranney said it would be more realistic to “add a couple of months” to those plans because of changes at the federal level.

“It is a little bit of a waiting game because there are so many elements,” said Ranney. “The people that think that things will be back to normal for prom and graduation season just aren’t being realistic.”

Alexa Gagosz is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at You may also follow her on Twitter at @AlexaGagosz.

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