Experts raise concern over UK variant amid looser COVID-19 restrictions

ATLANTA — Dr. Cecil Bennett is keeping a close eye on the new dominant and more aggressive U.K. strain here in Georgia.

The primary care physician and medical director of Newnan Family Medicine has a simple message as the state loosens COVID-19 restrictions this week.

“This is not something that we need to play around with at this time,” Bennett said Friday. “And I understand the need to try and get back to some sense of normalcy as soon as possible, but we still need to follow the rules.”

Georgia is one of four states featured on the front page of the New York Times this week, in a CDC data analysis showing case surge tied to the B.1.1.7 variant from February 1 to March 28. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky declared this week that the variant is the most dominant strain in the U.S.

By the end of March, the state reported 96% of 351 variant cases were that of the U.K. strain. Research of each available vaccine shows some protection against the more aggressive virus forms, although there are still many efficacy unknowns. This is raising alarm among the medical community monitoring obvious differentiators in the strain, as they continue to encourage and advocate for more people to access the vaccine.

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“The UK variant is more contagious, it affects children more than the typical US virus does,” Bennett added. “It seems to hospitalize people at a higher rate as well and it also appears to be more deadly.”

CDC data updated Friday showed 14% of the state’s population fully vaccinated, but the population figure included children who are not yet eligible for vaccination, but more prone to variant infection. Pfizer announced on Friday that it has submitted a request to the Food and Drug Administration to expand emergency use of its vaccine to kids 12 to 15 years old. Currently, 16-year-olds are the youngest to be inoculated.

Thursday marked the end to most major COVID-19 restrictions in Georgia, allowing businesses more leeway to invite more people into closer quarters. Shelter-in-place restrictions for older and more vulnerable populations were also lifted. State health guidelines still encourage mask wearing, social distancing and sanitizing.

Outside a Cobb County restaurant Thursday, Jacquelyn Mann told us she was fully vaccinated, but still not ready to join any indoor crowds because of concern over variants and the loss of people she knows.

“It’s all unknown so when you can take precautions, why not take precautions?” asked Mann.

Data analyst Dr. Amber Schmidtke highlighted Georgia’s NYT variant map on Thursday evening, tweeting “Make good choices.”

“Again, just because something is open does not necessarily mean that it is safe,” Schmidtke warned. “Humans do not get to unilaterally decide when the pandemic is over. The virus has a very important say in when things are over and right now, the virus still has a lot of tools on its side to keep going.”