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The so-called UK variant of the coronavirus has been confirmed in three Fresno County patients, interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra said Friday.

The B.1.1.7 variant is more contagious and may cause more severe symptoms than the original COVID-19 coronavirus strain, could infect people who have already been vaccinated for the coronavirus, and might not respond to the same treatment that healthcare workers have used for patients previously, Vohra said.

“In many ways, it’s like we’re in the first few months of the pandemic all over again and we’re just trying different therapies that we think will work.” Dr. Rais Vohra

Uncertainty about the best way to treat COVID-19 patients infected with the UK variant or other variants is raising questions and concerns among health care workers, he said: “It’s like we’re in the first few months of the pandemic again.”

Since the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020, COVID-19 patients have been treated with anti-virals, steroids, mechanical devices such as respirators, and monoclonal antibody therapy, Vohra said.

But now there is concern that a single monoclonal antibody therapy might not wipe out the virus and could instead enable the virus to develop a resistance to the drug therapy, he said.

Treatment Guidelines Change

The state is so concerned that it’s recommending against using the bamlanivimab monoclonal antibody by itself, saying it should be used in tandem with another monoclonal antibody, Vohra said.

“It is actually creating some havoc with our therapeutic protocols,” he said. “I wish I knew more about exactly what the latest science on these therapeutics versus the variants is, but it’s moving very quickly,” Vohra said, adding “we’re just trying different therapies that we think will work.”

County health officials have expected for some weeks that one or more of the variants would come to the region, but Friday’s announcement during the twice-weekly public health briefing was the first official confirmation.

The patients tested positive for the coronavirus in late February or early March, and their tests were sent to the state to determine which strain of the virus had infected them.

Vohra said that “bottlenecks and backlogs” kept the county from learning from state officials of the UK variant diagnosis until Thursday.

“Obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said, noting that many other patients in the community likely have been sickened by the variant strain.

He said he did not have information on how many have tested positive for the coronavirus but negative for a variant. The UK variant is the most common variant in California, Vohra said.

A New Surge Is Possible

It’s being watched with great concern, because it is not only more contagious than the main strain but also has a more damaging effect on patients, he said: “It’s almost like the virus is mutating to be even more of a problem than it was before.”

If it becomes the dominant strain, there could be an increase in the number of severely ill patients who require hospitalization, creating a new surge, he said.

Patients who have received their full vaccination dosage, whether it’s the two-shot Pfizer or Moderna or single-shot Johnson & Johnson, could still be infected with a variant and could become ill, Vohra warned.

That’s why it remains important for everyone, whether or not they have been vaccinated, to continue to wear masks, maintain a 6-foot distance from other people, and keep washing their hands, he said.

Vohra noted solemnly that even though more than 80,000 Fresno County residents having been fully vaccinated and thousands more have received their first shot, the virus continues to spread through the community. By the time the one-hour media briefing ended, three to four people in the county would have caught COVID-19, and by the end of Friday will have died, he said.

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