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Healthbeat: Infectious disease doctor discusses COVID-19 variant

WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — With far more people waiting to be vaccinated against COVID-19 compared to those who have already received the shot, the concern to stop the spread has only increased as more variants emerge.

The first case of a mutated version of COVID-19 was reported in Pennsylvania this month. 

Scientists estimate a new variant of the COVID strain could be twice as contagious. Variants of the virus can raise some serious questions like what is the difference in the virus, how did it mutate, and what precautions should be taken? 

With a new report indicating one of the variants may reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine and plasma treatments, Eyewitness News turned to a Geisinger infectious disease specialist for answers.

When it comes to viruses mutating, Dr. Stan Martin, Geisinger Director of Infectious Diseases says it happens on a regular basis with little serious impact, but not always.

"So that has always been the concern about the rise of any variant with COVID," Martin said.

Scientists estimate a new variant of the virus is twice as contagious as the first documented strain to surface in the U.S. in 2020 and could be more resistant to vaccine or donated plasma from recovered COVID patients.

"Even if you're not always having the same 100% efficacy of a certain antibody, it may be sufficient to still reduce disease and we see this even with vaccines," Martin said.

When it comes to vaccines like the Moderna and Pfizer versions, Martin says the goal is to reduce disease even if infection occurs.

"I think ideally you want to prevent both, right? But if you can prevent disease you're preventing people from getting sick, you're preventing people from winding up in the hospital and having all of the other complications and ultimately that is what's most important," he said.

Martin says there is no evidence indicating the COVID variants cause more severe disease. But for those who are already suffering, there is no indication a change in the treatment regimen is on the horizon.

"Most of the treatments we have for COVID, unfortunately, are still kind of limited to the people who are particularly sick requiring hospitalization and those kinds of things. People with milder infection who don't need to be in the hospital, thankfully, typically don't necessarily event benefit from many of those treatments," Martin said.

As we continue making our way through this pandemic, Martin urges you to get vaccinated when when you are eligible and continue safe practices like mask wearing, social distancing and frequent hand washing and sanitizing.