Everyone who thought that surviving a case of COVID-19 would make them immune from a future infection of the novel coronavirus needs to think again. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has revealed that at least 822 people in the state have contracted the virus twice.
The 822 second-infection cases were added to the CDPHE's data dashboard yesterday, March 1, based on cases reported from August 20 through February 28. In each instance, the positive tests took place more than ninety days apart, thereby lessening the prospect that the positive result indicated a single, lingering infection as opposed to separate cases. Such re-infections only impacted 0.19 percent of total COVID-19 cases in the state, but they weren't limited to a narrow demographic. Those who doubled up on the disease ranged in age from one to 101, with a median age of 42, and were scattered across 45 counties. The split between males and females was close to even: 51 to 49 percent.
In response to questions from Westword, the department also cleared up a seeming discrepancy in case counts reported by Governor Jared Polis last week, explained the difference between variants of concern and variants under investigation (even the latter is raising alarms in certain quarters), and confirmed that only a small number of samples are being screened for variants at this time, resulting in uncertainty about how many atypical strains are circulating, and where.
At his February 26 press conference, Polis said that 1,521 positive cases had just been reported that day, yet the CDPHE's website for the same date lists only 941. "The case numbers that Governor Polis referenced during his press conference were a preliminary count of all of the new cases that we planned to update on our website at 4 p.m.," the CDPHE explains. "That preliminary count of 1,521 includes cases that were added with a previous report date, in addition to new cases with a report date of Feb. 25. Every day, cases reported through the end of the previous day are updated on the website. In other words, the governor was referencing a preliminary increase in the cumulative case count, and not the number of new cases with a specific report date."
During the Q&A portion of that press conference, Polis was asked if any variants had been discovered in the state beyond the one associated with the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, but he didn't offer a definitive answer. In its response to our queries, the CDPHE fills in the gaps about both variants of concern, which currently number 100, and variants under investigation, now at 54.
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes a variant of concern as one that spreads easier, causes more severe disease, reduces the effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or is harder to detect using current tests," the department's spokesperson notes. "Current variants of concern circulating in the United States include B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1. So far, the state lab has only detected the B.1.1.7 variant of concern, and the lab has detected 100 cases."
According to the CDPHE, "Other variants, like L452R, show different characteristics of the original virus, but they are still under investigation and are being studied to understand their significance. So far, we have found 54 L452R variants."
And what is L452R? TheScientist.com notes that it was first detected in Denmark last March and was subsequently identified in the United States, where it's circulating widely in certain locations, including California. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the proportion of the variant went from 3.8 percent to 25 percent of cases in the state over a roughly six-week period between mid-November and the end of December.
As for potential risks, a University of Washington report offers this explanation: "The mutation exchanges arginine to replace the amino acid leucine-452, which is in direct contact with the ACE2 cell receptor for the coronavirus. This replacement is predicted to create a much stronger attachment of the virus to the human cells and also might allow it to avoid the neutralizing antibodies that try to interfere with this attachment. However, although evidence for such assumptions is growing, additional research is necessary to determine the exact impact of the mutation on the virus structure and function. Additional work is also needed to see how it might affect the transmissibility and infectivity of the virus, how the immune system responds to the variant, and the course and severity of disease."
Fortunately, the amount of variants in Colorado remains low right now — officially, anyhow. But as the CDPHE acknowledges, "We expect there are more variant cases in Colorado. ... The state lab’s goal is to eventually screen 5 percent of all of the state’s positive tests for the variant. Right now, the state lab is screening about 3 percent of all positive cases for variants."
That makes the other 97 percent of these cases mysteries to be solved another day.