One particularly worrying COVID-19 variant is causing more coronavirus cases in the U.S. than any other strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This particular variant, B.1.1.7, appears to be both more contagious and more likely to cause severe COVID-19 symptoms than other strains of the virus.
“Based on our most recent estimates from CDC surveillance, the B.1.1.7 variant is now the most common lineage circulating in the United States,” Rochelle Walensky, M.D., M.P.H., director of the CDC, said at a White House press briefing this week. This COVID-19 variant, first identified in the U.K., contains a few genetic mutations that experts say can make it more contagious and potentially more likely to cause serious illness and hospitalizations.
The B.1.1.7 variant now accounts for about 27% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of mid-March, the most recent CDC surveillance data available, but this variant isn’t present in all areas at the same level. For instance, B.1.1.7 was found in 39% of samples in Michigan, 35% in Tennessee, and 34.5% in Florida. But it was found in only 0.5% of cases in Kansas and 1.6% in Arkansas. In California, B.1.1.7 was seen in about 10% of samples, and in New York it was present in 15.7%. In some areas, other (also concerning) variants are more common than this one.
While the landscape of coronavirus variants is evolving, the U.S. is now vaccinating about 3 million people per day, Dr. Walensky said. But we are still facing a potential fourth wave as cases and hospitalizations continue to steadily increase.
“These trends are pointing to two clear truths,” Dr. Walensky said in the briefing. “One, the virus still has [a] hold on us—infecting people and putting them in harm’s way—and we need to remain vigilant. And, two, we need to continue to accelerate our vaccination efforts and to take the individual responsibility to get vaccinated when we can.”
The COVID-19 vaccines we have now appear to be somewhat less effective against various coronavirus variants (depending on the particular vaccine and the particular variant you’re looking at), but they’re still generally effective. And experts say that, if you do get COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated, you will likely have a milder version of the illness. Plus, pharmaceutical companies are already hard at work on booster shots to make the vaccines we have even more effective against the variants. (Moderna says its booster shot will be available by the end of the year, for instance.)
So what’s the best way to protect yourself from coronavirus variants like B.1.1.7? By using the same public health tools we’ve become accustomed to: Wear a well-fitting mask in public, stay at least six feet apart from others you don’t live with, wash your hands frequently, avoid crowds, prioritize good ventilation (by holding gatherings outside or opening windows inside), and, yes, getting a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you’re eligible. These prevention methods can keep the virus from spreading and, therefore, also reduce the chances of the virus developing more mutations and variants.