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More Contagious Coronavirus Variant On Its Way To St. Louis

St. Louis Public Radio is answering your questions about the stay-at-home orders put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

A more contagious form of the coronavirus may already be circulating in the region, St. Louis doctors say.

A coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom last year has been found in 20 states, including Illinois.

Because it’s only a matter of time until it comes to Missouri, people in the region must continue to be vigilant, said Dr. Fred Echols, St. Louis Department of Health acting director.

“One thing that we’ve learned about the new variants is that they aren’t necessarily more deadly, but they do spread more efficiently,” Echols said. “So the focus has to continue to be prevention.”

While there are several mutated variants of the coronavirus emerging around the world, including in South Africa and Brazil, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said the variant found in the UKcould become the main form of the virus circulating in the U.S. by March.

The mutation has evolved to be more “sticky” when it attaches to human cells, said Dr. Pearl Philip, an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield.

“This could mean that it takes less virus to infect you, it can mean that when it does infect you it can replicate more quickly,” Philip said. “So an infected person could release more virus when exhaling. Ultimately it means that this form is more transmissible.”

Although the variant can spread more easily between people, it has not been shown to make them sicker. It’s also likely the coronavirus vaccines still work against the new variant, Philip said.

When someone gets sick with the coronavirus or receives the vaccine, “You generate antibodies to many parts of [virus],” she said. “That makes it less likely that one mutation here or there would leave you unprotected.”

However, a more contagious virus will ultimately mean more deaths, said Dr. Farrin Manian, chair of the Department of Medicine at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.

He called the news of the emerging variant “unsettling.”

“That means you’re going to have more people potentially getting this virus, which could result in more people winding up in the hospital and straining our health system more,” he said. “I think it makes it more imperative that we stick to our usual public health measures to try to reduce transmission opportunities.”

Missouri and other states are sending coronavirus test samples to the CDC to test for the mutations, Echols said.

Coronavirus cases have been decreasing in the St. Louis region. The metro area has seen about 1,186 new cases per day over the past week, down about 32% over last week, according to data gathered by the New York Times. Daily hospital admissions for the coronavirus at the region’s hospitals remain high but have been largely flat for the last month.

Doctors say if people don’t continue to be careful by wearing masks and social distancing, those numbers could go up again.

“If the community focuses on preventing the spread with those COVID-19 mitigation strategies, we can get through this without having a significant spike in cases.” Echols said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter@petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.