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Doctors: Vaccinating Utah A Race Against COVID-19 Variants

FILE (Photo by Filip Filipovic/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Department of Health is tracking three main COVID-19 variants, and as research continues, doctors are optimistic that current vaccines work against those variants.

One of three main variants, the B.1.1.7 variant that was first identified in the United Kingdom, has been identified in Utah, mostly in Salt Lake County. There is an urgency to get people vaccinated before the variants gain ground.

“It’s a race to get as many people vaccinated, get as many people immune to this virus before the virus can get to the point where it can actually mutate to evade or escape the vaccines that we have,” said Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare.

While COVID-19 case counts decline, doctors worry about variants and the level of protection vaccines provide.

“This is why we don’t just say OK, we’re done, we’re finished and celebrate,” Vento said. “We have to get as many people vaccinated as we can so that we can really keep the transmission of the virus down.“

The Utah Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard now posts variant surveillance, which already showed 67 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. That’s less than 1% of all Utah cases.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said that variant is known to be more contagious than other variants and it’s known to cause more severe illness in young people.

“However, we have really good news: The vaccines work against the variants, and we’re doing a great job in Utah at getting the vaccine out to our population,” Dunn said. “So it’s so important that when the vaccine is available to you, you get it.”

“Pfizer has announced that it looks like, right now, when they’ve done testing in-vitro, in the lab that their serum for their vaccine actually is effective at neutralizing the variant strains,” said Vento.

He said the Pfizer vaccine is less effective against the South African variant. Each of the vaccine manufacturers is working on this issue, and considering their options which could include booster shots.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said studies suggested that antibodies gathered through vaccination do protect against variants.

Meantime, masks and physical distancing still protect Utahns against the variants.

“So let’s keep using those tools until we all get vaccinated,” said Dunn.

Vento said the mutations were expected and it would not be unusual for the vaccine manufacturers to modify their serum or come up with booster shots that we might take annually.

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