COVID Variants Are a Serious but Manageable Threat in NC, Expert Says

A woman wearing a face mask walks a dog in Washington, D.C., in March. (Image via Getty Images)

By Michael McElroy

March 20, 2021

Here’s what you need to know about COVID variants in North Carolina and how to protect you and your family.

Mutations of the virus that has upended all of our lives in this COVID-19 pandemic could upend them once again if we let down our guard, health officials have warned. 

The most concerning variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 are more contagious, deadlier, and show initial signs of diminishing the effectiveness of the vaccines. 

We know that masks, distancing and washing our hands stil help to protect against the variants, but we don’t know what these mutations will mean in the overall fight against the virus. For example, just how prevalent are they right now in North Carolina?

The answer, officials say, is, we don’t know.

READ MORE: NC Smokers, Cancer Survivors, Pregnant Women Eligible for COVID-19 Vaccine

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists five “Variants of Concern,” which it defines as showing evidence of increased transmissibility, severity and reduced vaccine-protection. But, the testing to determine the prevalence of these variants is limited, meaning there are nearly guaranteed to be far more instances then are recorded. Three have been recorded in North Carolina.

That lack of data, in some ways, has scientists still fighting blind more than a year into the pandemic. 

“The variants are a real threat,” Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, said in a video conference on Thursday. But, he added, “We don’t fully understand their implications.”

Mutations are common with viruses. It’s what they do, it’s how they survive. But, in particularly deadly or novel viruses, those mutations could make it more difficult to eradicate the virus. 

The US needs a widespread genome testing effort, like the one used in Britain to identify and track the variation that emerged there, and is crucial to staying ahead of the emerging changes.

“That’s something we don’t really have in place yet,” McClellan, a physician and former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, said.

“But when you see these variants starting to grow, that’s an early warning signal that we need to understand them better. We need to do some further testing to make sure the vaccines do work well against them.”

Keeping Calm, and Masked

While concerning, the scant data still suggests the problems can be managed if handled right. 

“Just about all the variants we’ve seen so far seem like can be managed with our current vaccines and current policies, augmented by this vigilance and maybe modifying our treatments and doing booster vaccinations down the road. But that’s why it’s so important to detect these early.”

He added: “It is something we have to be vigilant about.” 

For now, he said, both private citizens and public officials needed to do more to assure we avoid the worst case scenarios.

That means masks, vaccines and distance. 

“In the meantime, the best approaches we have are the ones everyone knows about – the masking, the distancing steps to prevent the variants or any COVID from spreading, and, of course, accelerating vaccination as quickly as possible.”

Still, there are signs of hope. 

Even if a variant evades a particular vaccine, like the one that originated in Brazil (known officially as variant P.1), vaccines still play a crucial role in limiting the effect of both existing variants and ones that could emerge later on. The more chances the virus has to spread and multiply within a host, the more chances one of those multiplications could have a mutation. The more chances at mutations, very common among all viruses, the more chances that one of those mutations could be deadlier. 

So more vaccines means fewer hosts, which limits the virus’s reach, diminishes any variant’s threat and gets us all closer to being able to hug our loved ones again.

COVID Variants Are a Serious but Manageable Threat in NC, Expert Says

“The more people are vaccinated, the more people take steps to prevent further infections, the fewer chances there are of variants emerging and taking hold,” McClellan said.

And, so far the variants have not shown the surge in cases that some officials had feared at this stage.

“The overall evidence on the variants has been more encouraging so far than many people expected,” The New York Times’s David Leonhardt wrote this month.

“The vaccines are virtually eliminating hospitalizations and death in people who contract a variant. Reinfection does not seem to be widespread. And even if the variants are more contagious, they have not caused the kind of surges that seemed possible a couple of weeks ago,” he wrote. 

Just as promising,  while vaccines are still a while off for young children, teeangers and adolecents should be able to get vaccines this summer, McClellan said. As long as everyone does their part, summer is still a good benchmark for some kind of normalcy.

Here in North Carolina, many people are now eligible for the vaccine, including pregnant women, older adults, those with health conditions that put them at risk of serious complications, and frontline workers. To see if you’re eligible, and where to get a vaccine, you can go the NC DHHS-sponsored website or call the COVID-19 Vaccine Helpline at 1-888-675-4567.

“While I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to get back to a lot of normalcy this summer and on through the year,” McClellan said, “that doesn’t mean that COVID is going to completely go away.” 

There will be a continued need for more testing and could be the need to reinstate distancing or restrictions. But, if done right, those could be on the local level, not on the national. 

“I think these are all manageable problems if we take the right steps,” McClellan said.

The C.D.C.’s five Variants of Concern:

  • B.1.1.7.
    • Origin, United Kingdom
    • Risks, Significantly more contagious; likely more severe.
    • In NC? Yes.
  • B.1.351.
    • Origin, South Africa
    • Risks, More contagious, “moderate” effect on vaccine effectiveness.
    • In NC? Yes.
  • B.1.427/B.1.429.
    • Origin, California
    • Risks, Somewhat more contagious, moderate effect on vaccine effectiveness.
    • In NC? Yes.
  • P.1.
    • Origin, South America
    • Risks, signs of a significant effect on vaccine effectiveness.
    • In NC? No.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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