Wastewater testing in the city of Burlington has detected the “very likely” presence of the more contagious variant of the coronavirus that originated in the United Kingdom.
If confirmed, the results would mark the first known presence of the B.1.1.7 variant in Vermont, which has been found in 34 other states.
“This is a new stage of the pandemic here in Vermont,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in a press release Thursday. “It is not, however, surprising. We expected that variants could be circulating in Vermont, and now that looks to be the case.”
The city launched its wastewater program in August and began testing for the UK variant last month. Tests taken at the city’s primary treatment plant — which serves downtown, the Old North End, South End and parts of the Hill Section — detected “low levels” of two genetic mutations associated with B.1.1.7 late Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Miro Weinberger said.
Tests at the city’s two other treatment plants have not yielded evidence of these mutations, leading city officials to conclude that while the variant is likely here, it’s not spreading quickly.
The state will work to confirm the results using a sample from a patient confirmed to have the UK variant, according to Brian Lowe, the city’s chief innovation officer and who is leading the testing program. That sample will then be sent out for genetic sequencing.
“It could be a while before they identify [it], both because of the process and because of the number of cases that they have to check,” he said.
Weinberger said people should take precautions now to slow the variant’s spread. He suggested that residents don higher-quality masks or even double-mask, as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There is a belief that the public health measures that have worked to keep the virus in check in the past are still operative," he said. "Now, people just need to be particularly vigilant and focused on carrying them out."