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News and Features

Second COVID Variant Identified in Shelby County

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WKNO File
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A presumed Brazilian variant of COVID-19 has surfaced in Shelby County. Scientists at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center used genetic sequencing to identify the mutation, then sent their findings to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  for confirmation. 

A UTHSC lab first detected the so-called U.K. variant here last week.  

“We are not alarmed that these strains are being detected because we, here in Shelby County, are conducting a pretty robust effort of surveillance trying to find these variants,” said David Sweat, deputy director of the Shelby County Health Department.

While UTHSC is screening about 100 random samples a week, Dr. Scott Strome wants even more sequencing to better understand how quickly and widely variant strains are spreading.

“It allows you to take a broader painting of what this looks like and hopefully detect the South African strain, the Californian strain or maybe even some new strain we’ve never ever heard of,” said Strome, UTHSC’s dean of the College of Medicine. 

Increased scrutiny could quicken contact tracing efforts to contain the virus and give epidemiologists a better grasp of the changing nature of the virus in the region, Strome added. 

A recent study suggests that the Brazilian mutations have the potential to reinfect people who have already recovered from the virus. Stome could not say which of the known Brazilian strains, referred to as P.1 or P.2, was detected in Shelby County.  

The contagious U.K. version is believed to now be rapidly spreading across the U.S.

Meanwhile, Shelby County’s vaccine eligibility is still limited to people older than 70 and large groups of healthcare workers. The health department said about 30 percent of area adults 75 and older have been vaccinated. 

Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter said doses will likely not be available to those next on the priority list— teachers and individuals over age 65—until next month. 

She appealed to people to wait their turn and not misrepresent their eligibility. 

“Every time somebody who is not eligible for vaccine makes an appointment and gets in line and gets vaccine, that means somebody who’s at risk of dying from COVID did not get an opportunity for vaccine,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are focused on those people who are most at risk, and that’s to reduce really deaths, and hospitalizations and suffering.”    

The county is expected to receive about 11,000 doses a week for the remainder of the month. That doesn’t include allotments sent to other vaccine distributors such as local Wal-Marts and long-term care facilities.