By Jesse Sarles

DENVER (CBS4)– Colorado health officials are once again reporting a rise in the number of COVID-19 variants in the state, and CBS4 Medical Editor Dr. Dave Hnida says one in particular has doctors on edge: the Brazilian (P.1) variant.

(credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

By midweek last week two cases of the P.1 variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus were discovered in Boulder County. Then by Friday, the state was aware of 12. They were also found in Denver, Broomfield and Arapahoe County. Colorado does not do sequencing of all COVID cases to determine genomic data that would show variant types, which means there could be other areas where it’s gaining a foothold.

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“There’s a lot of unknowns. And what we do know does have us a little bit concerned, in fact, it’s making us a little bit jittery,” Hnida said in his weekly CBSN Denver question & answer session. “We do know that it is more contagious than the other strain, or the so-called original strain of COVID that was hanging around for the past year. We also know that people who have been previously been infected with COVID really have no immunity, no protection against this variant strain.”

Last week, Colorado state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said there is some limited data on the Brazilian variant showing reduced vaccine effectiveness.

“We always worry about just how effective the vaccines are going to be. Each week there becomes an increasing risk that the vaccines will become less effective against things like the Brazilian variant, as well as the other variants.

Last week, Herlihy said state health officials are doing contact tracing in order to look at “both at upstream at potential sources of infection for these P.1 cases that we have identified and we also look downstream to see which individuals these cases may have had contact with.”

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SARS-CoV-2 samples are taken from a PCR analyser. Virus variants with an increased risk potential are diagnosed, including the British B.1.1.7 variant, the South African and Brazilian virus variants

SARS-CoV-2 samples are taken from a PCR analyser. Virus variants with an increased risk potential are diagnosed, including the British B.1.1.7 variant, the South African and Brazilian virus variants. (credit: Waltraud Grubitzsch/picture alliance via Getty Images)

So how do the variants arise? As CBS News reported last month, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is constantly making copies of itself and as it replicates occasionally tiny mistakes, or mutations, can occur in the genetic code. The change is usually insignificant, but in the case of the P.1 variant it means one or more mutations teamed up to create a more dangerous version of COVID-19.

“When you take a look at variants in the United States, as well as Colorado, they make up the majority of cases of COVID,” Hnida said. “We are seeing variants that are now dominating the illnesses that are taking place in Colorado as well as around the country. And in particular, what’s going on with this is these are more serious infections, they are infections that are being spread more readily (and) we are seeing it in younger and younger people.”

Hnida said for these reasons it’s important for Colorado residents to continue to follow local health guidelines when it comes to preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

“I know everybody’s going ‘Well, you know, things are getting better, we can relax a little bit. We’ve got the All-Star Game coming,” he said, referring to Major League Baseball’s decision to move this summer’s game from Atlanta to Denver over objections to extensive changes to Georgia’s voting laws.

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“But yet, we still are in a race to the finish line here. And it is something that I think we really do need to just kind of keep in our minds that we’re not quite done yet. And we really do need to get through this so-called ‘fourth wave.'”

Jesse Sarles