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As The Vaccine Rolls Out, New COVID-19 Variants Show Up In Nevada

(AP Photo/John Locher, File)
(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

In this Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, file photo, empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen at a vaccination center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Governor Steve Sisolak just announced people 65 years old are now eligible to get the vaccine.

At the same time, stories abound statewide of people getting the vaccine way ahead of when they are scheduled to—government officials and their family, for instance.

But what can people do other than shake their heads? 

At the same time, can you blame them? There is a push to get the vaccine into as many bodies as possible as soon as possible to stall the development of mutations. 

Even so, the South African variant of COVID-19 was just found by the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory in Reno. 

The director of that lab, Dr. Mark Pandori, told KNPR's State of Nevada he would be "concerned" about the new variant. 

The South African variant produces more viral load in an individual compared with what he refers to as the "garden variety" of coronavirus. More viral load means the amount of virus in a person's body is higher, which also means he or she is more contagious because he or she is spreading more virus.

Dr. Pandori compared that to the UK variant, which doesn't produce more virus, but on a per-virus-particle basis, is more infectious.

"There's a quality and a quantity concept," he said, "You can be more infectious because the viruses themselves are more infectious, or you can be more infectious because you're shedding more virus."

The big question about the new variants is whether the vaccines that are currently being distributed will actually work against them. Dr. Pandori said with the South African variant it is about quantity.

"For the South African variant, it requires a higher dose neutralizing anti-bodies," he said, "So, in a sense, the vaccines for Pfizer and Moderna the data shows that it just requires a more concentrated amount of that neutralizing anti-body to neutralize the South African variant."

Dr. Pandori compared it to taking two Aspirins instead of one. 

Brian Labus is an epidemiologist at UNLV's School of Public Health. He said speeding up the vaccination process is the best way to stay ahead of the variants.

"Basically, we're talking about interrupting a chain of transmission," he said, "One case becomes two, those two become four, and so on and so on - we have exponential growth with it. So, if we can intervene earlier on in that process, we can prevent a lot of cases many generations down the road."

Of course, preventing cases means preventing hospitalizations and deaths. It also prevents a chance for more mutations. 

"If we're vaccinating people, they can not get the virus," Labus said, "They can fight it off, and the virus does not get a chance to mutate within each person."

Labus said that each of us can work like a petri dish where the virus can change and become something different before it spreads. He said stopping that process is vital to stopping the pandemic.

In Southern Nevada, the Southern Nevada Health District is heading up efforts to get the vaccine in as many arms as possible as quickly as possible. 

JoAnn Rupiper is the director of clinical services for the health district. She said right now more than 300,000 vaccine doses have been distributed, most of those have been first doses.

Getting the vaccine to everyone in the state really depends on the availability and the demand, she said.

"If we have enough vaccine, we have the capacity to do about 60,000 per week," she said, "If we get that much vaccine, we can do that."

Rupiper said if the federal government and the vaccine suppliers can distribute more, and the health district is able to scale up to 20,000 doses a day the entire state could be done by June. 

"I wish we could get vaccine into everybody like tomorrow," she said, "But the importance is is that it protects yourself and others from COVID-19." 

Southern Nevada Health District Vaccine Portal

Nevada Vaccine Call Center: 1-800-401-0946

An interesting fact about vaccines is they are more effective than the natural immunity people develop after getting a virus and recovering from it, Dr. Pandori said. 

"That sounds a little counterintuitive until you realize that these viruses have been evolving for thousands and thousands or millions of years to avoid natural immunity," he said, "They have no evolutionary history dealing with vaccine-mediated immunity, which can be boosted and engineered."

As the vaccine continues to roll out and the state test positivity rate declines, some people are starting to feel optimistic. Dr. Pandori doesn't think the word 'relaxed' is in his vocabulary anymore.

In the world of public health, it is really not a win until a virus is defeated, he said, but unfortunately, infectious diseases tend to be like campfires.

"Let's say you've got a campfire and then you got to go home," he said, "You could just let the campfire there but what happens - you've got embers. As soon as any dry leaves or pine needles touch those embers - what do you get? You get a fire again."

Pandori said to properly put out a fire and extinguish all embers you have to put several buckets of water on it. The same is true with infectious diseases. They will linger unless it is gone after with aggressive measures.

Dr. Mark Pandori, director, Nevada State Public Health Laboratory;  JoAnn Rupiper, director of clinical services, Southern Nevada Health District;  Brian Labus, epidemiologist, UNLV School of Public Health 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.