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UM Pathologist: A Lot To Learn About New COVID Strains Across South Florida

The image depicts the coronavirus binding to a human cell. The variant identified in the United Kingdom has a mutation known to increase how tightly the virus binds to human cells.
The image depicts the coronavirus binding to a human cell. The variant identified in the United Kingdom has a mutation known to increase how tightly the virus binds to human cells.

Dr. David Andrews discusses the U.K. variant of the coronavirus, which has been reported in South Florida more than anyplace else in the state.

By next month, the U.K. strain of COVID-19 may be the predominant version of the virus circulating across the country according to modeling from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Already, there are dozens of cases in South Florida — a hot spot for mutation — even as it is unclear just how common this more contagious version of the virus is here.

"We don't know a real prevalence rate yet," said University of Miami clinical pathologist Dr. David Andrews.

The mutated strain of COVID-19 first found in the U.K. comes to South Florida as the daily infection rates are just below 10% in the region's counties, and the number of people getting their first dose of a vaccine continues falling compared to a week ago.

Through Wednesday of last week, only half the number of people in South Florida received their first dose compared to the previous week. Fewer than 50,000 first doses were given according to state data.

"We are seeing it and we are seeing an increase," Andrews said about the U.K. strain in South Florida. "That's where we stand right now."

The mutation is more contagious, and scientists need more data to determine who widespread it is. Andrews said current COVID-19 tests can pick up the strain, but "we're not really at the level where we can do a test and instantly say, 'Well, you're carrying this strain or that strain.'"

There is a lot still to learn about COVID-19 and the new strains that have appeared. In addition to the U.K. strain, there are mutations named for where they were first seen: South Africa and Brazil.

So far, according to Andrews, the current vaccines offer at least some level of protection.

"The data is so far encouraging and that it provides partial protection," he said.

So far, there are no changes to the recommended safety precautions despite the higher contagious nature of the new strain.

"What is needed is more attention to the guidelines that are already in place — rigorous attention to wearing masks and attention to distancing," he said.

Tens of thousands of complaints have been made over the past several months against restaurants, stores and homes for not following COVID-19 safety guidelines: People not wearing masks. People too close to one another. Too many people gathered.

All may be violations of the rules in place to try to slow the spread of the virus.

"The complaints are typically for restaurants not enforcing the county facial covering mandate," said Palm Beach County code enforcement officer Richard Padgett.

The county's dashboard indicates almost 11,000 complaints have been filed — 78 notices of violation have been issued.

"The goal of the COVID education compliance team is predominantly to provide education," Padgett said. "Our goal is not to shut down businesses or interrupting business. We're seeking voluntary compliance with the facial covering order."

Richard said 15 code enforcement officers in Palm Beach County are dedicated to the COVID-19 team at night and on weekends when restaurants and bars are active.

Broward County Mayor Steve Geller points to Gov. Ron DeSantis' decision to strip local governments from being able to collect fines for safety protocol violations as sending the wrong message to the public about the rules.

"Theoretically, once the pandemic is over, we can try and enforce those citations, but without any ability to collect people think we never are going to," Geller said.

In addition, Geller said local city officials in Broward County are choosing to go a step further and not issue citations for violations.

"We have been in this crisis for a year. Everybody knows by now what they're supposed to do. Some people choose not to. I don't think warnings work any more. I think that if they closed down a few businesses, the others will comply," he said.