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The strain of COVID-19 known as the California variant is more contagious and may lead to more severe disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And unfortunately for Fresno County, the variant is here. This week, California officials told the Fresno County Health Department that four cases of the California variant (sometimes referred to as the West Coast strain or by scientists as B.1.427 & B.1.429) have been discovered here.

The news comes on the heels of the county reporting three COVID-19 patients had the UK variant.

“All of these variants are of concern because they are more contagious and possibly more virulent, meaning that they have a higher chance of landing somebody in the hospital with complications,” Fresno County interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra said Friday afternoon.

Vohra is worried that people will let their guard down during spring break next week, enabling the variants to play a larger part in the last chapter of the pandemic.

“It will probably prolong all of the crisis that we’re dealing with,” projected Vohra. “These variants are here in Fresno County. Make no mistake about it.”

“All of these variants are of concern because they are more contagious and possibly more virulent.” – Fresno County interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra

Where Did the California Variant Come From?

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have analyzed its mutations and released a few key findings.

According to an online report in “Prevention“, the California variant has three mutations in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, which signals that it may be more infectious than the initial, dominant novel coronavirus strain, the researchers say. The coronavirus uses the spike protein to latch onto human cells, where it then replicates and infects other cells, explains infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Thus, “changes in the spike protein are likely to change the ability of the virus to bind to human cells. That may make a virus more efficient.”

It’s unclear exactly where the variant came from, but recent research conducted by UCSF and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub found that it is prevalent — 53% of 630 positive COVID-19 cases detected in San Francisco’s Mission District in mid to late January were represented by a key mutation known as L452R, which is shared by B.1.427 and B.1.429.

Another preprint study conducted by researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center found that there has been “dramatic growth” of the California variant in the state since November 2020.

New Covid-19 Vaccine Eligibility

“If you had a family member who was eligible in the tier system, your entire family is eligible to receive the vaccine.” – Fresno County community health manager Joe Prado

Fresno County Public Health officials announced that if a person who is eligible to be vaccinated under the current criteria is accompanied by with a family member, the family member is allowed to receive the vaccine with “no questions asked” about their eligibility.

“If you had a family member who was eligible in the tier system, your entire family is eligible to receive the vaccine,” community health manager Joe Prado said.

Prado says some of the questions his office is fielding about this new eligibility started coming in Friday morning. He says a big one is whether or not a person who otherwise would not be eligible needs to be with you to get a vaccination.

“The answer is no, they do not,” said Prado. “Just state that you have a family member who does meet the tier.”

According to the latest numbers on Fresno County’s vaccine dashboard, 28.7% of county residents age 16 and older have had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

50+ Eligibility Opens April 1

The state is opening up vaccine eligibility to those 50 and older on Thursday, but people trying to sign up through MyTurn don’t have that option just yet.

Prado says the state tells him they’ll be working on the system over the weekend.

“Whether they decide to flip the switch on Monday or Tuesday, we’ll see,” he said. “They may not flip the switch till April 1.”

For now, Prado says the best bet for those age 50 and older would be to sign up through an eligible family member, per the new eligibility that just opened Thursday.

“If you sign up through MyTurn, use the occupation of your eligible family member,” he said.

The county is also doing a vaccine clinic at the Selma Senior Center for the next several days. Hundreds of appointment slots are now available there. Walk-ups are being taken in, or you can sign up ahead of time through the website.

FEMA Sites Shutting Down

The California Office of Emergency Services announced Friday that the vaccine super-site run by FEMA at Cal State Los Angeles and the  mass vaccination site at the Oakland Coliseum both will close April 11. Cal OES says that out of all those vaccinated at the Oakland site, nearly 67% of doses went to underserved communities and people of color. The Los Angeles site, which was set up in mid-February, has  capacity to vaccinate approximately 6,000 people a day,

As for whether this means Fresno might get a long-rumored FEMA site, Vohra says he hasn’t heard anything.

“We certainly won’t turn down an offer for FEMA to come to Fresno County,” he said.

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