This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
Mutations are common in viruses, leaving officials scrambling to assess the dangers each might pose
New COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been declining for nearly two months in New Jersey, thanks to slowly growing vaccine coverage and continued infection-control protocols.
But the novel coronavirus isn’t done with us yet, experts note.
Viruses “constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Multiple variant strains are circulating globally, and have different combinations of mutations,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said at a media briefing Friday.
At least a half-dozen variants of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, have been identified in the United States and three types have been found in New Jersey, beginning in late January. While the total case number of people infected with those variants remains low — 176 diagnoses, as of Tuesday — testing capacity for those specific variants is somewhat limited. And public health officials worry that the evolving virus could create new challenges, like greater potential for spread or mortality, which would slow the pandemic recovery process.
“This is just a reminder that we must stay vigilant in adhering to public-health measures — masking up, physically distancing, washing hands frequently, avoiding large gatherings — in order to control the spread of the virus in our state,” Persichilli said. “This virus is still with us.”
Vaccinations gathering steam
Nearly 900,000 New Jerseyans have so far been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to state figures, and tens of thousands of shots are being administered daily around the state. While several thousand new COVID-19 diagnoses are reported daily, new cases are half of what they were at the pandemic’s most recent peak — in mid-January — and hospitalizations and deaths have declined at a similar pace.
But the rate of transmission — an indication of how quickly the virus is spread, based on multiple factors — has been inching upward for most of the past month. On March 4 it passed the critical threshold of 1.0, beyond which every infected person spreads the virus to at least one other, on average. The measure stood at 1.05 on Tuesday.
“It’s pretty clear that hospitalizations, severe illnesses, are going in the direction we want them to go in,” Gov. Phil Murphy said during a news conference Monday, in comments about how the presence of the variants is delaying decisions to more fully reopen businesses and services again.
“At the same time, it’s quite clear people are still getting the virus. So there’s sort of a decoupling,” he continued, “I assume due to the variants that are in our midst. So that’s something we’re watching, and those are factors that we’re trying to weigh in terms of capacities and the degree to which we open (and) when we do it,” Murphy said.
While experts agree more research is needed to quantify the real impact of these variants, there is a concern that some — like the U.K. form — could spread more easily. Public health officials recommend people continue with the same infection-control protocols, from face masks to immunizations, to protect against these variants.
Nationwide there are more than 3,000 cases of the three variants tracked by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vast majority of which are the B.1.1.7, or U.K. variant. Florida is home to more than 640 of these cases, Michigan reports nearly 440 and California has identified more than 160. Dozens of cases of a fourth mutation, the B 1.526 or New York variant, are also circulating that metropolitan region, but it has not become widespread nationwide, officials note.
According to the New Jersey Department of Health, 137 cases of the U.K. type have been identified here, along with two cases of a Brazilian variety called P.1, which is relatively rare nationwide. The state has also diagnosed 37 cases of the New York variant, the DOH said, with three new cases in recent days. The state has not identified any cases of yet another variant that’s drawn the attention of health experts, the B 1.351 type connected to South Africa.
On Monday Persichilli said the New York variant cases are concentrated in the northeastern part of New Jersey and the P.1 diagnoses involve two connected individuals in Hudson County. Most of the U.K. variant cases are found in Ocean and Monmouth counties — with at least two-dozen diagnoses each — and Burlington County, according to state data.
Need to boost variant testing
Testing for these variants has been somewhat limited, however, and the state is looking to expand its capacity to identify mutations by working with private labs and other organizations. Rutgers University has also taken steps to boost variant screening with the development of several methods, which it is making publicly available.
“We need to know this to know whether we should be focusing on certain communities for prevention for more aggressive quarantines,” Dr. David Alland, one of the Rutgers researchers, told NJ Spotlight News’ Briana Vannozzi on Tuesday. “We need to understand this to see if we start seeing vaccine failures, is it a problem with the vaccine, is it a problem with the virus. And we don’t know any of these things yet.”
Variants are now identified in conjunction with COVID-19 test processing at the state’s public health labs and some of the commercial facilities conducting coronavirus tests, according to the DOH. Screening of New Jersey samples is also conducted by the federal CDC. The DOH said scientists examine random samples and focus on individuals who have travelled to areas where new variant strains are common.
The DOH declined to say how many of the tens of thousands of coronavirus tests administered daily are screened for variants in this manner. Since March, more than 11 million COVID-19 tests have been performed in New Jersey.