COVID-19 update: New variants and vaccine access

Dear Campus Community,

At the end of what was a very difficult year for so many, virtually everyone was happy to bid good riddance to 2020.

Speaking personally, I can say I have never looked forward to the start of a new year more.

Now, three weeks into the New Year and two weeks into the new semester, the shadow of the events of 2020 still loom large.

The hope that many times comes with the flipping of the calendar to a new year seemed overshadowed by the ongoing surge, national vaccine delivery problems and the possibility of new variants of the virus.

You’ve been through a lot over the past 11 months, and for many, this time has been unsettling and anxiety-provoking to varying degrees.

We feel your angst and understand it.

Let me address the two things that seem to be on everyone’s mind: the new virus variants and vaccine distribution issues.

The New Variants

In every epidemic throughout history, the bacteria or virus that causes infection changes with time and goes through its own evolution.

This process leads to certain strains or variants becoming more common in certain populations of people for a variety of reasons.

We see this with all pathogens — it’s a known phenomenon and is to be expected.

If the U.S. had instituted surveillance sequencing (genetic fingerprinting) of the virus on a national level, we would have seen multiple strains come and go over the last 11 months. In fact, that is what we’re seeing in countries that adopted a more thorough approach to surveillance along the way.

Data suggest that certain variant strains now circulating in the UK and parts of Europe are more contagious and spread more easily. Some of the variants of concern from the UK have been identified in Florida. We do not have sufficient data to say how widely these variants have spread in our region, how quickly they are spreading or what impact they will have our overall case rate. What is reassuring is that these variants do not appear to make people sicker — and the vaccines currently on the market appear to be effective in preventing infection and illness with these variants.

What needs to happen now? We need more studies to better understand the real risk posed by the new variants. These studies are underway globally and nationally. Locally, we are launching our own sequencing project. We have been doing small numbers previously but we are starting to systematically sequence virus from campus, our community and throughout the state.

We will share our assessment of new data regularly and, if necessary, adapt our infection prevention procedures accordingly.

Vaccine Access

News that the first vaccines were available just before the end of the year was exciting and game-changing, but unfortunately soon overshadowed by new challenges around the country.

Media reports of disorganized vaccination sites and distribution of vaccine to people not thought to be high-risk as well as stories of sites running out of vaccine were discouraging.

Fortunately, here in Gainesville we are developing robust plans to scale up to the levels necessary to achieve the herd immunity that will get us out of this mess and end the pandemic.

UF Health is collaborating with the Alachua County Health Department to provide vaccine to the broader Alachua County community, with UF Health taking care of its own patients and the health care workforce at UF Health.

This approach has been successful thus far.

Despite the limited number of vaccines that have been available, Alachua County leads the state with the highest per capita vaccination rate. Over 23,000 Alachua County residents have been vaccinated at the time of this writing.

We expect vaccine supplies to increase in the weeks to come, and we will have the ability to vaccinate thousands daily once more is available.

What’s Next?

It’s still a little early to tell for sure, but there are signs that national and state numbers of new cases are beginning to drop slowly, and that may mean the holiday surge is cresting.

Whether or not the new variants impact the number of cases is unknown, but the surge we’ve seen thus far can all be explained by the holidays and associated indoor unmasked gatherings.

When we get the green light that we can begin vaccinating people in substantial numbers who are younger than 65 and not working in health care, we will do everything we can to vaccinate as many people on campus as possible.

The pandemic will end and we will get through this. But we will get there faster and safer together.

As always, please visit the Screen, Test & Protect website for more information and don’t hesitate to reach out to us if we can be of any help at all.

Michael Lauzardo, MD, MSc
Director, UF Health Screen, Test & Protect
Deputy Director, Emerging Pathogens Institute
Associate Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine
UF College of Medicine