When it comes to COVID-19, there are almost too many dots to connect. To name a few, it is estimated that new variants of the coronavirus disease could kill 90,000 more Americans in the next month, as forecasted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – potentially requiring double masking or upgraded masks; a more coherent vaccine distribution plan rollout by President Joe Biden’s administration to get more shots in arms across the U.S.; and help from the Missouri National Guard to offset dismal vaccine rates in the state.

Since the first week of February, 52 million vaccines have been distributed with 26 million Americans (7.8%) receiving the first and/or second vaccine. The Biden administration has sent one million vaccines to 6,500 pharmacies located in hard-to-reach areas with the goal to increase more equitable distribution. The administration promises a “larger cadence” of vaccines by March. This injection comes as coronavirus variants threaten to increase infection rates.

The variant trifecta

The coronavirus, like all viruses, is continually mutating and has thousands of identified variants. With the identification of three highly transmissible, and in some cases more deadly, coronavirus variants from the United Kingdom (U.K.), South Africa, and Brazil, calls to wear [a] mask have now shifted to wear [masks].

The U.K. variant could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by sometime in March, and has already been identified in Marion County, Missouri. This variant appears to be more transmissible than the more common strain, and according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, may be more lethal than previous mutations. As mentioned in a Washington Post article, England’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, said that among 1,000 men in England age 60 or older who have been infected, the original strain would kill 10. However, he said the new variant would kill 13 or 14 – representing a 30% rise in mortality.

The South Africa variant has been identified in more than two dozen countries as well as in the U.S. (confirmed reports at the time this article was written was in South Carolina). South Africa’s health minister said the strain seems to affect young people more than previous strains, and like the U.K. strain, seems to be more transmissible.

The Brazilian strain has also been found in several countries including in the U.S., specifically in Minnesota. This variant comes with more than a dozen alterations, several of which are found on the virus’s spike protein, which is what binds the virus to the cell. As a result, researchers believe the strain could be more transmissible.

As for how effective the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are at neutralizing these variants, for the most part, experts say the vaccines still work with a few caveats. One study of older adults suggests that the immune response triggered by the Pfizer vaccine was somewhat less effective in the U.K. variant. Just recently, the U.K. variant was detected in Kansas.

Moderna said its vaccine is still effective against the South Africa variant – but – the vaccine-elicited antibodies were less effective at neutralizing this mutation in a laboratory dish. Pfizer released their own study which suggests their vaccine effectively neutralizes the South Africa variant; however, slightly less effective than the first strain.

Scientists have suggested the possibility that the Brazil variant could evade antibodies which could negatively impact the current vaccines’ effectiveness. Additionally, some reports indicate this strain has resulted in reinfection rates in Brazil. As a result, Moderna announced it would develop a new vaccine to address the variant in case a booster shot is needed.

All the more reason to double-down on masking

It’s no secret that America is less responsive to masking than other countries, an issue that’s grounded in partisanship rather than good old-fashioned common sense. Some experts warn it’s time for the highest-grade N95 or KN95 masks, while others discourage it, stating a depleted supply would put front line health care workers at risk. However, Asian countries are mass producing higher-grade masks, and European countries have mandated medical-grade masks in public settings.

“The existence of more-transmissible viruses emphasizes the importance of us upping our game and doing not more of the same but better of the same,” said Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC.

The CDC suggests wearing masks with two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric, completely covering nose and mouth, and fitting snugly against the sides of the face without gaps. Avoiding crowds, people outside of the bubble, social distancing at least six feet away, and good hand hygiene continue to be strongly encouraged.

Missouri Positions to Ramp Up Vaccinations, Another Vaccine Soon to Issue EUA

As the one-dose, 65 percent-effective Johnson and Johnson vaccine issues its emergency use authorization (EUA) for approval, Missouri is working to address its low rate of vaccinations. Currently, the state is vaccinating eligible individuals under Phase 1A, and Phase 1B – Tiers 1 and 2. Missouri is one of the states with the lowest vaccination rates in the country (see the latest numbers).

To be fair, vaccine supply remains extremely limited. And like in most states, current demand for the vaccine outweighs current supply. To ramp up vaccinations, Gov. Mike Parson announced in late January that the Missouri National Guard will begin assisting the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and other state partners with establishing COVID-19 vaccination sites across the state – including Missouri’s nine Highway Patrol regions.

“The Missouri National Guard is once again answering the call to help Missourians in time of need,” said. Gov. Parson. “The purpose of these vaccination teams is to support our existing vaccinators and provide an additional vaccination source for eligible Missourians that may otherwise have a hard time receiving the vaccine.”

Missouri National Guard mass vaccination teams include 30 support personnel who provide traffic control, administrative support, and data input. Targeted vaccination teams consist of four-person teams with one vaccinator and three support staff who assist providers with paperwork and data backlog due to vaccination entry requirements.

Mass vaccination sites were slated to be operational by the end of January, with the capability to provide up to 2,500 doses per day, per team. Targeted vaccination sites provide vaccines to population outside the reach of mass vaccination sites, as designated by DHSS. These teams support clergy and community leaders in the Kansas City and St. Louis regions to vaccinate vulnerable populations and provide up to 160 doses per day.

The recently launched interactive COVID-19 dashboard contains state-specific data submitted by providers across the state. Among several things, the dashboard tracks the number of first and second administered doses, seven-day averages for administered doses, demographic information about individuals who have received at least one dose including age, sex, race and ethnicity.

In a release issued by the Lafayette County Health Department, located in rural Lexington, Missouri, vaccinations “should improve by mid-February as supplies become more available, and more vaccinator sites become active.”

To find registered vaccinators, visit http://covidvaccine.mo.gov/map. Vaccinators include medical clinics, pharmacies, hospitals, and health departments.

Lafayette County residents who want to be contacted when more information is available about vaccination eligibility can complete this signup form. Individuals without internet access may contact their medical provider, pharmacy, or health department for updates.Missourians can get latest vaccine updates, eligibility updates, and locate a vaccinator in their area at MoStopsCOVID.com.