Scientists in Santa Barbara County have identified 50 cases of COVID-19 variants of concern among county residents, including the West Coast and U.K. variants, as they work to stay ahead of virus spread in the community. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, several variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been discovered as the virus has grown and adapted over the past year. 

Among these, the B.1.1.7 (UK), B.1.351 (South Africa), CAL.20C (West Coast) and P.1 (Brazil) variants have been identified as variants of concern due to traits like increased resistance to vaccines and higher probabilities of transmission and death.

To keep the spread of variant and non-variant cases under control, county Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg urged residents to continue pursuing vaccines, adding that the county is in the process of vaccinating over 9,000 residents in a weeklong clinic at the Dick DeWees Community and Senior Center in Lompoc. 

"Be advised that the vaccine is incredibly effective against these mutations, and the more people are vaccinated, the less the virus can spread," he said.

According to county public health data through the end of March, sequence testing of 111 positive COVID-19 samples has identified 37 cases of the West Coast variant since November, and 13 cases of the U.K. variant since February among Santa Barbara County residents. 

The majority of confirmed variant cases were identified by local surveillance projects like the Variant Task Team, a research partnership between Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and the UCSB's diagnostics lab, according to county data.

"Variants are going to continue to be an important part of this next chapter for us. The more we know about variants circling in our community, the more informed and stronger we are," Cottage Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons said on March 17. 

Some COVID-positive samples are selected for testing at random, and others are selected when the likelihood of a variant is increased due to travel to an area with high variant rates, infection following a vaccination and a case contracted during an outbreak, Fitzgibbons said.

Some sample testing also has been conducted through partnerships with the state and county public health departments. Two U.K. variant cases were identified in Santa Barbara County through such partnerships, county officials reported on March 18.  

"This has, thus far, been a smaller volume with longer turnaround times, but lots of work is underway to really expand this effort," Fitzgibbons said.

The results of further sample testing will be available from UCSB on Wednesday, Ansorg said. 

Officials are also working toward expanding the local surveillance project to Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria for an additional partnership, she said.

The U.K. variant — discovered in the United Kingdom in the fall of 2020 — has been connected to higher transmission and a slightly higher risk of death, according to Fitzgibbons.

Meanwhile, little is known about the impacts of the two identified West Coast variant (the umbrella name for variants B.1.427 and B.1.429), but its origin and prevalence in California is expected to contribute to higher transmission.  

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"Much remains to be known about this variant, but what we absolutely know is that it was a common variant at the peak of winter surge in California … and that the current vaccines are very well matched against it," Fitzgibbons said.

According to the California Department of Public Health, 9,359 cases of the two West Coast variants and 851 cases of the U.K. variant have been identified statewide. 

Daily COVID-19 cases

County health officials said Friday that after weeks of decreasing rates, cases are beginning to increase again, threatening the county's potential entry into the orange tier.

The majority of new cases have been confirmed among residents in their 20s and those in the clerical sector, officials said.

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department reported 53 new COVID-19 cases and one death from the illness on Friday.

According to county public health data, 33,270 total cases have been confirmed and 205 cases remain active.

The additional death was of a Goleta resident between the ages of 50 and 69. This is the 440th COVID-19 death confirmed in the county, according to county data.

As of Friday, 26 individuals were hospitalized for COVID-19, including 10 in the intensive care unit.

In Santa Maria, 56 out of 11,206 total cases remain active and 153 individuals have died.

In Orcutt, 14 out of 1,766 total cases remain active and 29 individuals have died.

In Lompoc, 35 out of 3,533 total cases remain active and 53 individuals have died.

In the Santa Ynez Valley area of Solvang, Buellton, Los Olivos, Los Alamos, Santa Ynez and Ballard, five out of 987 total cases remain active and 17 individuals have died.

In the North County area of Sisquoc, Casmalia, Garey, Cuyama, New Cuyama and Guadalupe, seven out of 1,268 total cases remain active and 22 individuals have died.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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