Minnesota leaders believe a new variant of the coronavirus is already inside state borders and circulating, though it has yet to be confirmed through diagnostic testing.
Speaking Wednesday to announce the loosening of restrictions on Minnesota businesses following a lowering of case volume and hospitalizations following a surge in October and November, Gov. Tim Walz said the state is conducting surveillance to officially identify the mutant virus that has rushed other parts of the world.
"The State of Minnesota has been looking and doing our surveillance testing. We have not found it yet. It is probably here," said Walz. "Early indicators show that this variant, while not any more deadly in terms of the fatality rate, it does appear to be about 50-70% more contagious, which means it takes less of it, it's much quicker and it spreads very quickly."
Walz loosened restrictions on bars, restaurants, theaters, bowling alleys, churches, indoor pools and youth sports attendance, though he maintained that the state's dial could turn either way depending on the status of the pandemic.
That status could be affected by the new variant if it is indeed in Minnesota and capable of spreading rapidly, which Walz says is why it's pivotal that Minnesota "not let the virus surge again."
There are at least two confirmed new variants of the coronavirus. The one found in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, including in some U.S. states, is known as B.1.1.7. Another variant initially discovered in South Africa is known as B.1.351.
That is something we're tracking. It will have an impact, but it will only have an impact if we allow it to get in."
While the new variants have so far not been found to cause more severe illness, new variants of viral strains can lead to problems, of which the Centers for Disease Control says include:
- Ability to spread more quickly in humans.
- Ability cause either milder or more severe disease in humans.
- Decreased susceptibility to therapeutics and antibodies.
- Ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity.
The CDC says the virus mutating to a degree that it renders the vaccines less effective would be the worst-case scenario, but there "is no evidence that this is occurring, and most experts believe escape mutants are unlikely to emerge because of the nature of the virus."
"There's every reason to be optimistic, Minnesota, but there's every reason to believe it could get out of hand pretty quickly and we could spike again pretty quickly. That is a domino affect of big number of cases, followed by a two week lag, big numbers of hospitalizations, followed by death."
Walz reiterated that it is critical that Minnesotan continue to social distance, wear masks, wash hands and stay home when sick. He noted that those measures are the most effective against any variation of the virus.
"There's every reason to be optimistic, Minnesota, but there's every reason to believe it could get out of hand pretty quickly and we could spike again pretty quickly," said Walz.