The Vermont Health Department is urging continued caution after lab testing this week confirmed the presence of a second more contagious variant of the coronavirus in the state — this time, a strain first identified in California.
In a Thursday afternoon press release, the department said it has confirmed three cases involving the "B.1.429" variant. Two of those cases were from samples taken in Chittenden and Franklin counties, while the third's origin is pending.
The announcement comes a little over a week after the state confirmed the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the United Kingdom. That variant has now appeared in eight Vermont test samples, the health department said.
“These variants of the COVID-19 virus can move more easily from person to person,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in the press release. “This is setting us up for a race of sorts between the presence of strains of a highly contagious virus, our rapidly progressing vaccination program, and the need for each of us to continue to focus on prevention and getting tested.”
Viruses commonly mutate into new variants and strains, and state health officials have said they expected some to reach Vermont. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has so far identified four "variants of concern," or those that appear to be more infectious than other coronaviruses.
Vermont likely has more cases associated with the two now-identified variants than is known. The strains must be confirmed using genetic sequencing, and the health department sends only a small number of the state's overall positive tests to out-of-state labs performing the service; to date, it has sent out 158 samples. On Thursday, the state reported 139 new infections.
The California strain has shown some some signs of resistance to the current crop of vaccines, according to the LA Times,though studies are ongoing. The CDC has yet to deem any variants "high consequence," a category that would include strains shown to significantly reduce vaccine effectiveness.
Even if the vaccines ultimately prove effective against the variants, the presence of another more contagious strain of the virus has renewed calls for Vermonters to double down on prevention efforts. Only about 15 percent of the state's population over the age of 16 has been fully immunized so far; about 29 percent have received at least one jab.
“All prevention measures apply, and are critical if we are to stay ahead of the virus and give ourselves the couple of months more we need to get all eligible Vermonters vaccinated,” Levine said in a press release.