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What can Colorado expect of the COVID variants?

The variants of the COVID-19 virus weren't a surprise, though they do give us an idea of how long the virus will be part of our lives.

DENVER — The Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced Wednesday that the state has nearly 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants, including some cases under investigation. . 

So what do these variants mean in the long-run for Colorado?

We spoke with two infectious disease specialists and CDPHE to find out.

What is the state seeing with variants?

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been different variants that emerged," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said.

In Wednesday's press conference from CDPHE, Herlihy said viruses, like the one we're dealing with now, are constantly mutating. The genetic change may be large over a certain period of time, or it could be small.

"The virus that was first identified in the U.S. is probably a bit different than what is present now, because these genetic changes can accumulate and these viruses can drift, which is sometimes a term we use to describe these small genetic changes that occur," she said.

"When we talk about the predominant strains of variants circulating in the U.S. right now, those are distinct from emerging variants that we are specifically tracking because they have these concerning characteristics.  At this point in Colorado, we have not seen any sort of significant growth in one of these variants causing disease in the state." 

Herlihy said they continue to see sporadic cases of the variants but haven't tracked any significant changes. So what does that mean going forward?

"Most concerning situation would be if we identified variants that resulted in decrease vaccine effectiveness, or if we saw variants that escaped our existing immunity and resulted in more reinfection -- those would be most concerning scenarios," Herlihy said.

"We really aren't seeing that right now with the B.1.1.7. variant (the variant first detected in the U.K.). There have been some of those concerns with some of the other variants that are circulating  across the globe, specifically the variants identified in South African and also a variant identified in Brazil. But at this point, those variants have not been identified in Colorado."

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Health experts expected variants

Dr. Michelle Barron, with UCHealth, said virus mutations are expected.

"Nature copies itself. It's like handwriting," she said. "It's literally printing it out. At some point, it will make a mistake. The 100th time it copies itself, that mistake gets perpetuated, sometimes that's meaningful. Sometimes it's not." 

There's a reason why this happens. Dr. Jim Neid, with the Medical Center of Aurora, told us: "The virus has to become more creative to propagate. If someone is already infected and now immune, it has to become trickier to persist."

Vaccines

Wednesday, CDPHE said the vaccines offer protection against the strains found in Colorado so far, writing: 

"Both vaccines offer protection against the predominant strain in Colorado, and there is no evidence to suggest decreased vaccine effectiveness against the two variants currently detected within the state, B.1.1.7 and L452R."

Barron added that as more people are vaccinated, experts will learn more about the multiple variants found around the globe and vaccine effectiveness.

"Even if they are not perfect against these variants, it still seems to allow some level of protection," Barron said. "And the key thing is that it seems to keep people out of the hospital, and at the end of the day, if someone doesn't get hospitalized or die from this, we can deal with all the other pieces of this a lot better."

What about the future?

Barron gave us a look into what she thinks about the longevity of COVID in our state. 

"I think it just tells us that COVID is something that we will probably be living with for many, many years to come," she said. "The hope is the degree of infection it causes, over time, will lessen with the impact of vaccine -- it will become sort of in the background." 

Neid said wondering about the future is really the million-dollar question, and the answer is still to be determined. 

"It's certainly hoped with the combo of natural infection and vaccinations and public health maneuvers, like distancing and masking and hand hygiene, we can get to a level of protection from this virus that dwindles either completely out of society or to a level we can continue to tolerate it. We haven't been able to eradicate numerous viruses that cause the cold and other respiratory syndromes or gastro intestinal syndromes, but it's low levels and manageable enough levels that there's not a public health concern, per se."

Barron expects we could have vaccine tweaks going forward.

"It's certainly possible, like the flu, where every year you potentially get a different vaccine because the strains have changed. We may be doing the same thing with COVID. It's yet to be determined, but it would not surprise me if in the fall we are talking about boosting or vaccinating with a newer version of the vaccine."

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