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U.K.’s New Coronavirus Variant Now In The US, But Local Officials Say Masking, Distancing Still Work

State and city officials have downplayed concerns about the virus's variant, saying people can stop its spread with things they already do: social distancing, masking and hand washing.

Dr. Allison Arwady, right, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks at a press conference after five frontline medical workers received the vaccine against COVID-19 at Loretto Hospital on Dec. 15, 2020.
Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool
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CHICAGO — It’s possible a much-talked-about United Kingdom variant of coronavirus is in Illinois, Chicago’s top doctor said Wednesday, but she largely dismissed concerns about it.

The variant — which experts have said is possibly more contagious than other mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, though it’s still being researched — was detected for the first time in the United States on Tuesday in a member of the Colorado National Guard.

The variant has grabbed headlines because of concerns over how fast it’s spread in the United Kingdom, but Chicago and state officials have downplayed those worries and said they don’t plan on making any changes in how they’re responding to the pandemic.

“The good news, so far, is that No. 1 it doesn’t seem to make anybody sicker. … Secondly, most importantly, there’s been no sign at this point” that current vaccines don’t work against it, Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said during a Wednesday morning livestream.

Arwady said it’s possible the variant is already in Illinois, though she doesn’t think it’s here in “large numbers.”

“There was no chance we were not going to find that variant here in the U.S.,” Arwady said. “Clearly, we would identify it.”

Mutations to the virus are not surprising, necessarily bad or even rare, Arwady said: Experts expect to see about one mutation every two weeks with SARS-CoV-2. Hospitals in Chicago and around the world regularly do genetic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 strains found in patients to look for mutations and share the results in a public database, Arwady said.

Since already-approved vaccines are believed to work agains the variant, and it spreads the same ways as other forms of the virus, city officials aren’t changing how they’re responding to the pandemic for now, Arwady said.

“It doesn’t change, for me, anything we’re doing here …,” Arwady said.

But people should take the variant as a reminder not to let their guard down, the doctor said. People don’t need to be overly concerned about the variant as long as they do things experts already know are effective in slowing the virus’s spread, like practicing social distancing and washing their hands, Arwady said.

“There’s not a reason to be significantly concerned” as long as people take regular precautions, Arwady said. “I think it’s just one more variant of the many variants” already seen.

Last week, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the state’s Department of Public Health, said Illinois officials have talked about the variant with experts from London, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

“We have been advised that the measures we’re taking in terms of masking and promoting these mitigations are the same precautions that would need to be taken for this variant,” Ezike said. “We have been told there is no need to change what we’re doing.”

The state does send samples of SARS-CoV-2 from Illinois patients to federal officials every month, and they were told to increase how many samples they’re sending in so there’s “more robust surveillance to see what variants … we have circulating here,” Ezike said.

State officials are also following a variant found in South Africa, Ezike said.

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