BILLINGS — There’s another warning from Montana health officials as a new mutation for the COVID-19 virus inches closer to our state.
The US Centers for Disease Conrol and Prevention (CDC) says emerging variants of the coronavirus originally from the United Kingdom are now being found in neighboring states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota.
In addition, there's still cause for concern even if you’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 because health experts say this new mutation of the virus is proving to be more contagious and possibly more deadly.
However, pathologists at Billings Clinic are on high alert tracking it.
“It could become the prevalent virus,” said Dr. Christina Kavran. “And we could see another spike in cases.”
Billings Clinic recently started using a new testing system called TaqPath, which is yielding results in as little as 24 hours and helping to identify the new strain.
“It’s the most prominent one right now. And there's several different mutations, setting it apart from the COVID strain that's been circulating since the pandemic began,” she said.
The test is more accurate than antigen testing methods, according to those with Billings Clinic.
In this process, the test searches out three separate genes, which allows the testing system to identify the illness in multiple ways, according to a release from Billings Clinic.
Kavran says while there have been no positive cases of the United Kingdom variant in the Billings area yet, their lab has sent a dozen tests to the state to get further analysis.
But perhaps the most alarming thing about this new mutation is that the symptoms are relatively the same, but the strain is more contagious.
The CDC says the United Kingdom variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants. In January of 2021, experts in the UK reported that the variant may be associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variant viruses.
“This UK variant is just that it's more transmissible,” said Kavran. “It's more contagious, maybe about a month ago or so that the strain became more prevalent and we began to be alerted for looking for this potential different test. (Now) any test that you get for COVID will include us looking for this variant.”
The CDC says sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist. So Kavran cautions that the same precautions apply.
“We want people to know is just to continue with those precautions, even if you've received the vaccine, even if you've already had COVID before the potential for reinfection or decrease coverage with the vaccine is a possibility with as viruses mutation,” she said. “So we just want people to continue practicing their masking, social distancing.”
And for a timeline on when Montana could see the variant?
“Yeah probably it's just a matter of time before COVID (variant) really comes to Montana,” said Kavran.
Billings Clinic says they can analyze more than 400 tests every 24 to 48 hours using the TaqPath platform and has roughly 27,000 tests on hand.