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MCHD epidemiologists tracking COVID variants

MORGANTOWN — There are variant strains of COVID-19 in Monongalia County.

That’s the bad news, we know.

The good news?

The epidemiologists at the Monongalia County Health Department are all over it. And according to county health officer Dr. Lee Smith, that’s no small thing.

“Not to speak disparagingly of the state, but I would say we have more mental horsepower in our stables, of the two people who do epidemiology here, than the entire state has at the DHHR,” Smith said, adding, “I’d put our folks in epidemiology against anybody.”

The individuals referenced are Regional Epidemiologist Diane K. Gross and Epidemiologist II Luke Moore.

Smith said there are less than 10 known cases of what’s called the “UK variant” in the county.

“It’s a mutation on one of the spikes and, so far, what we know, is it’s about 50% more infectious and has a higher mortality. I mean, it kills you just as dead, but your chances of dying are higher,” he said. “We’re really concerned about that because, one, it’s more infectious and, two, if this is going to hurt people, we try to do what we can.” 

Smith said there are variant strains out of California with increased infectivity that have appeared locally as well.

Right now, what the health department can do is be rigid in its enforcement of 14-day quarantines, a policy that becomes less popular as the weather warms and COVID fatigue sets in.

“Our job is to try to prevent disease and protect the public. I’m sorry that people don’t like 14 days and I’m sorry people are fatigued from COVID, but we need to do what we can and try to shut this down,” Smith said. “The more infections, the more chance of mutation, the more mutations, the more chance our vaccine fails.”  

Smith said the spike in cases in Europe forcing entire countries back into isolation is evidence the situation remains tenuous.

“We don’t want to go there, obviously,” he said. “If fact, I don’t think, at this point in time, you could put that cork back in the bottle without having riots in the streets. We just have to make sure we’re on top of it.”

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