State public health officials and local health experts say increased coronavirus vaccinations are critical in preventing existing variants from getting out of hand and curbing the proliferation of new mutations. 

If the virus spreads unchecked, it creates more possibilities for the virus to continue mutating, which could lead to a more contagious and deadly variant, numerous public health experts have told Voice of OC over the past few months. 

“Right now, I feel relatively confident that the vaccines are going to protect people from most of the variants out there,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Sanghyuk Shin said in a phone interview last week. 

During the Winter wave, which saw over 2,200 people hospitalized in Orange County, new virus variants were being detected throughout the state.

Shin said he’s concerned about the potential impacts from classrooms reopening across the state. 

“Especially with a few variants circulating, one being the B117 variant,” Shin said. “In the U.K., this variant skyrocketed and just took over [the country] at a time when there was a pretty strong lockdown, except schools were open.” 

He said the B117 variant, also known as the U.K. variant, could affect children more than the original virus strain. 

“One really alarming thing, especially with the schools opening up, is often we just think about school children about them being at lower risk — that may not be the case with some of these variants, including the B117 variant,” Shin said, adding that additional studies still need to be done. 

While county and statewide positivity rates and hospitalizations are relatively low, Californians 16 and older are expected to be eligible for the vaccine this Thursday.

There’s also a severe drop in the Johnson and Johnson vaccine supply this week, according to a distribution tracker from the CDC

The Golden State got over 570,000 doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine last week. This week that number significantly dropped to roughly 68,000. 

State officials are also concerned about the variants and their potential impact.

“This is a race basically between vaccines and variants,” said Secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, at a news conference last Tuesday. 

At a news briefing earlier that day, Ghaly said the Pfizer vaccine looks to have some promising effects on children. 

“I think the initial data on vaccinating 12 to 15 year olds with the Pfizewr vaccine also showed very strong results in preventing infections,” Ghaly said. 

As of last Wednesday, the state had 980 cases of the U.K. variant, according to the California Department of Public Health’s website.

There’s also over 12,000 confirmed cases of the homegrown California variants. 

Ghaly said public health officials examined about 5% of all confirmed cases throughout February and March to track the variants. 

Shin and other public health experts are concerned the U.K. variant may be more contagious and deadly, although he said more clinical studies need to be conducted. 

UC San Francisco epidemiologist, Dr. George Rutherford, told the Los Angeles Times the California variants may have somehow suppressed the spread of the U.K. strain, although he’s unclear exactly why. 

The South African variant appears to be resistant to vaccines, but Ghaly said public health officials haven’t detected it in the state. 

Meanwhile, Orange County’s hospitalizations have plateaued after steadily dropping for roughly a few months following the Winter wave. 

As of Monday, 120 people were hospitalized, including 29 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency. 

The virus has now killed 4,839 people — nearly nine times the number killed by the flu on a yearly average. 

COVID deaths have now surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC. 

It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively. 

Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest state health data.

According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.

Shin said, ideally, the shutdowns would’ve continued until millions of more people were vaccinated across the state to prevent more cases and variants. 

“It’s a race against time but we can swing that race into our favor if we actually do something like a paid shutdown. Stay at home measures are not popular, but they definitely work and they’ve already saved countless lives. I think, especially with the vaccines being rolled out, it makes absolute sense to me to add onto that,” Shin said. 

State officials are hoping to lift nearly all coronavirus restrictions, except mandatory masks, by June 15. 

Shin said state health officials should make regional teams to help deal with potential outbreaks ahead of the scheduled Summer reopening. 

“I think if we’re able to keep counts very low and able to have public health response teams — contact tracing, case investigation. Those teams that are in place to address outbreaks, which are definitely going to happen throughout the foreseeable future … I think it makes sense to open up and get into a phase like we plan on doing June 15.” 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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