With new variants of the COVID-19 virus now beginning to appear on the mainland, local Health officials said Thursday that they will continue to monitor reported impacts while sending samples to the Centers for Disease Control to see if new strains begin to appear in the territory.
Speaking at a Thursday press briefing, Territorial Epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis said scientists are working to learn more about how easily the new variants can spread, whether they can cause more severe illness and whether the vaccines currently in use will protect against them. Referencing a new variant seen primarily in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Ellis said there is no evidence of an increased death rate, but there is significant concern that this variant of the virus can be transmitted more easily.
Since this strain can be “up to 70 percent more easily transmitted,” cases in these countries have continued to increase, and more have been detected in the U.S. and Canada, Ellis said. Meanwhile, according to leading U.S. contagious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, another variant in South Africa also spreads more quickly and may pose a threat to antibody drugs.
“Another variant recently emerged in Nigeria and the CDC is monitoring this strain, but at this time there is no evidence that it causes additional harm,” Ellis added. In the U.S., 12 cases have been detected so far and the V.I. Health Department will continue sending local samples to the CDC for sequencing to determine whether the variant has been detected in the territory as well.
“Recent events are alarming and can have real impacts here in the Virgin Islands where we have seen cases increasing significantly,” Ellis said. “Last night [Wednesday] there were 38 new COVID cases in the territory, this means we have to remain extremely vigilant, continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.”
Pop-up testing from the department, along with a new requirement starting next week preventing incoming travelers from getting on a plane without a negative COVID test, should help keep numbers low, and Ellis said there is still some hope in the statistics.
“The U.S. Virgin Islands should be proud,” she said. “We continue to have the lowest COVID case rate in the U.S. and territories. Over the span of the outbreak, we are the fourth lowest in cases per 100,000 persons. In comparison, the highest was six times ours and we have the third-lowest death rate.”
Meanwhile, the department and V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency continue their vaccine rollout. Ellis said so far, 2,314 residents have been vaccinated territorywide.
As of Thursday’s press conference, the territory was tracking 156 active COVID cases. To date, 38,944 residents have been tested territorywide and, of that amount, 2,218 have tested positive. Of the 156 active cases, 78 are on St. Croix, 74 on St. Thomas and four on St. John. There are currently no hospitalizations.