“Double up, New Paltz,” warned New Paltz Village Trustee William Wheeler-Murray in a post on the community Facebook page on Feb. 24.
Wheeler-Murray warned the group of a more infectious strain of COVID-19 from the U.K., B.1.1.7, that has made its way to Ulster County as of Feb. 5. The Village Trustee wrote that the state reported 59 cases of this strain, but health officials recognize that the number is “far greater” and that B.1.1.7 is on track to be the leading strain in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), viruses constantly change through mutation. The U.K. variant spreads more easily compared to other versions of COVID-19 and may be associated with more deaths, but more studies need to be conducted to confirm this claim. However, the strain could have a bigger toll on healthcare resources.
B.1.1.7 has spread to over 50 countries and has already become the dominant strain in Britain, according to BBC News.
Research from Public Health England suggests that the variant may be 30-50% more infectious than the original strain of COVID-19. Other variants from South Africa and Brazil have also been detected in the U.S.
The three variants have slight changes in their genetic code called E484K, which helps the virus bypass antibodies.“The U.K. strain is here, it is real, and the Usain Bolt-like speed through which it spreads is nothing short of frightening,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press release on Jan. 3.
“There’s no mystery as to how it got here – it got on a plane and flew here from Europe, just like the original strain did.”
In his post, Wheeler-Murray advised the community to wear two masks to protect against this potentially more dangerous strain. He recommended that people wear a surgical mask under a reusable cloth mask.
“I’ve had a couple of people say thank you that they hadn’t heard about the variants or the recommendation to double mask as an added precaution,” Wheeler-Murray said.
The Village of New Paltz isn’t offering any additional services to New Paltz residents, however, they are offering Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to their employees for free provided by the Ulster County Department of Health.
The U.K. strain was first identified in October 2020 and caused more common symptoms of sore throat, cough, muscle pain and fatigue, according to The Scotsman.
“A disease that’s significantly more transmissible is of great concern,” Wheeler-Murray said. “Its effect won’t lead us out of where we’ve been and now sit. Schools not fully functioning, businesses hobbled by necessary restrictions, relationships strained, unemployment rising or stagnating, are all real possibilities that could continue.”
It is unclear whether the current COVID-19 cases in Ulster County are caused by the U.K. strain.
As of March 10, Ulster county has 1,582 active cases, New Paltz has 111 and SUNY New Paltz has 29, a decrease after a slight uptick last week.
Wheeler-Murray said that from what he has seen, the New Paltz community appears to be following guidelines, but the rising number of cases still causes concern.
“From my observations, I think generally people in the community have been very good at wearing masks and abiding by social distancing recommendations,” he said. “I can only report though from what can be seen publicly, such as on the street, in the supermarket, post office, bank, for example. But given [the] recent rise of local infection rates, we may not be doing that great a job.”
As of Feb. 12, The CDC said that the antibodies generated by the vaccines recognize the new strains but more studies are being done. However, a recent study from The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, showed that the variant from Brazil may resist antibodies in people who have previously caught COVID-19.
Increased strict compliance with social distancing, quarantine, isolation, handwashing and the use of fitted masks will help prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the new infectious variants.
“If you’re eligible to get vaccinated, do so as soon as you can get an appointment,” Wheeler-Murray said. “This is no time to relax all the practices we’re all familiar with, putting mask-wearing at the top. Don’t let your guard down even if you’ve been vaccinated.”