Brazilian variant now also in county

By , Daily Memphian Updated: February 10, 2021 9:14 AM CT | Published: February 09, 2021 12:38 PM CT
<strong>Shelby Health Department personnel and volunteers administer COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 in the Pipkin Building at Tiger Lane.</strong> (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

Shelby Health Department personnel and volunteers administer COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 in the Pipkin Building at Tiger Lane. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

A week after the U.K. variant was sequenced in Shelby County, researchers now confirm the Brazilian strain is also circulating here.

Both are considered more contagious strains of COVID-19.

“This reflects that this is a world disease and the variants are going to come to the United States,” said Dr. Scott Strome, executive dean of the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

“I don’t think anyone needs to panic. This was the expectation (that other strains would show up in the United States.) It just continues to reinforce the need for everyone getting vaccinated as quickly as possible, for good mask-wearing and social distancing,” he said.

The strain was detected over the weekend, according to the Health Department, which said it was not alarmed because local labs are conducting “a pretty robust effort” to find the variants.

“And we don’t find many. Right now, it’s only a couple of patients have been proven to have these various strains,” David Sweat, Health Department deputy director, said Tuesday, Feb. 9, at the joint task force briefing.

UTHSC identified the variant as P.2, one of two Brazil variants that seem to be make the virus less susceptible to the vaccine. The other is P.1, thought to be highly contagious.

Both Pfizer-BioTech and Moderna, the only two vaccines approved, seem to still prevent serious COVID disease but may be less effective in preventing mild cases, researchers say. 

“The vaccine may not be as effective and also a previous infection will not develop the same level of immunity against these variants,” said Dr. Manoj Jain, epidemiologist.

“That is why we worry about these mutations and what they can do,” he said. “We don’t think P.2 is as highly transmissible. That is really good to know and important to understand.”

Researchers at UTHSC do not know the date the Brazilian sample was collected in a COVID test. Officials have also not disclosed where the specimens were processed. 

“Because the samples are randomly drawn from across all testing sites, knowing which lab processed them doesn’t really tell you anything,” Strome said.

The Health Department immediately began quarantining the people and isolating their contacts.

Sweat said the second variant was presumed to be the Brazilian variant. Strome says there is no doubt.

“If we did it, it’s right. I simply don’t know what presumptive means in this case. ... If we get the sequencing done 100 more times or 1,000 more times, the results will not change,” Strome said.

Last week, UTHSC said 100 samples it was analyzing per week was about 4% of the positive tests in the community, which means the number of variant-strain cases could be higher.

It places urgency on the need to quickly vaccinate more people, a source of continuing friction locally due to the difficulty people have getting appointments.

A link to sign up for second doses was released at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9. Within minutes, the slots were filled. To add insult, the Health Department’s automated calls to alert people of openings came 45 minutes after all the appointments were taken, said Howard Spector, a senior citizen waiting for his second dose.

“At 10:45, a by-then useless text message from SCHD announced the portal opening. You can see how the cluster continues,” he said.

“I was one of the lucky ones to get an appointment, but there are so many others that really need SCHD and county government held to account for the continued disorganized mess so they can get their second doses on a timely basis,” Spector said.

Sidney Hickey received a text about the second doses at Germantown Baptist more than hour after all the slots were taken.

“Hope you all continue to give a realistic analysis of how poorly the Health Department is handling this,” she said. “They have had more than a month to get this well organized and failed, in my opinion.”

Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter is getting the same complaints through a hotline so busy the department for weeks has said it is retooling the system and hiring additional operators.

“As we receive more vaccine, we will continue to distribute more widely. We ask everyone to be patient. It’s a very, very challenging time for everyone because there’s much greater demand than there is supply,” she said.

The second shot is a booster for the first immunization, she said, which does not expire.

People who get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are told to come back in 21 days. If they receive the Moderna, they are to return in 28 days.

“We do encourage people to get it within six weeks of that 21st or 28th day, but if you don’t get the vaccine right on the 21st or 28th day, you’re still OK,” Haushalter said.

People’s lives are complicated beyond the science. Hickey’s husband, retired urologist Dr. David Hickey, would like to be able to return to his volunteer role at the Church Health Center but isn’t comfortable doing that until he is fully inoculated, Hickey said.

“And I would really like to have the freedom to hug my daughter and son-in-law before they move in March,” she said.

Haushalter says the situation will improve as more sites open. But for the next three weeks, Shelby County is slated to receive about 4,000 fewer doses than the 15,000 it received last week, which complicates the near term.

Strain found in Shelby County is UK variant, UTHSC says

Those are first doses only. They are divided between hospitals, safety-net clinics such as Christ Community and Church Health Center, and the mass clinics run by the Health Department and the City of Memphis and UTHSC.

The vaccines Walmart is giving are part of a national campaign separate from the local allotment. The same is true for vaccines being administered through the Veterans Administration hospital.

It is not clear how many shots either entity is giving locally or if they are included in the 83,220 vaccinations given so far in Shelby County.

The vaccine data is also being reported by race, and so far, shows that white people are being vaccinated at twice the rate of Black people. Tuesday, Haushalter said those statistics could be substantially off because the state did not initially collect data on race or ethnicity.

“Of the over 80,000 doses given (in the county) about 19% of those do not indicate the race and ethnicity of the individual that received the vaccine, and about 36% do not include ethnicity at all,” she said.

The state has since corrected its data-collection system, she said.

In Shelby County, 43% of doses, where race was identified, were given to white people; 22% of the doses were given to people who identified as African American. About 14% identified themselves as other, which could be mixed race or another race.

Based on data the state released Monday, Haushalter said the percentage of shots going to minorities was higher here than the rest of the state.

“While we need to continue to focus on equity and inclusion, we are far ahead of some other areas of the state in reaching our most vulnerable communities,” she said.

The next vaccination site to open is expected to be in Frayser.

And while Davidson County has chosen to break with state priority order and vaccinate teachers early, that likely will not happen in Shelby County.

Haushalter expects it will be early March before teachers are eligible here, noting that the local Health Department still has to concentrate on 1a1 and 1a2 categories, plus people who are 70 and over.

To date, the Health Department has not released numbers of the people in the three categories or the percentage that may have been vaccinated.

Tuesday, Haushalter said, the percentage was getting close to 30% of people 75 and older.

“Probably later in the week, we’ll know more of the 70 and above,” she said.

Locally, people continue to say they qualify for the shots when they don’t.

“We do want people to bring proof of eligibility so we can ask for that if we so choose,” Haushalter said.

While Haushalter said the department does investigate cases of people misrepresenting themselves as health care workers, the rub is that it’s difficult to spend the time on that when the need to vaccinate is so urgent, she said.

“Every time somebody who is not eligible for vaccine makes an appointment and gets in line and gets a vaccine, that means somebody who’s at risk of dying from COVID does not get an opportunity for vaccine,” she said.

“We want to make sure that we are focused on those people who are most at risk and that’s to reduce deaths and hospitalizations and suffering.”

County Commission urges state to move up teacher vaccinations

Coronavirus cases and new health directive

There are 85,234 total Shelby County coronavirus cases, up 158 in the last 24 hours. Locally, 1,387 deaths are attributed to the virus.

Over seven days, the county has reported an average of 285 daily cases. Over 14 days, the rate is 303 cases. The positivity rate now is 8.9%.

Health Directive No. 17 loosening restrictions issued

Three weeks ago, Health Directive No. 17 went into effect, raising restaurant capacity to 50% and allowing museums and other venues to open.

“We are approaching the time to see what changes we can make in the fourth week,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, Health Department medical officer. “We will be looking to issue a new health directive in the next week or so, especially if the trend continues downward.”

To loosen restrictions, the seven-day average needs to be at or less than 180 new cases. The test positivity rate needs to be at or less than 5%, according to the tripwire indicators released last summer. 


coronavirus coronavirus variant health directive Scott Strome Sidney Hickey Howard Spector UTHSC
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.

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