With a second coronavirus variant confirmed to be present in Mississippi, state health officials say it reinforces the need to get vaccinated now and to continue safety precautions.

The South African variant was identified in a COVID-19 case in Harrison County, the Mississippi State Department of Health announced Friday afternoon.

State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said it is “a strong reminder that we are not remotely out of this, and we still need to exercise some basic caution.”

Mississippi is the 26th state to confirm the variant.

“It’s something we’ve anticipated for quite a while, and we think we’ll see more of it,” he said in a talk with reporters. “This just reinforces our messaging – how important it is to get vaccinated and protected now. Times is of the essence, and we need to make sure that we continue with those simple prevention measures that are not very disruptive – just wear a mask in public and avoid large indoor social gatherings. We’ve got a little ways to go.”

The U.K. variant was first identified in the state in mid-February, and 10 cases of that strain have been confirmed to date in Mississippi. Both the U.K. and South African strains show evidence of increased contagiousness, said Dobbs.

“The U.K. variant, recent studies do suggest that it is more deadly, maybe even 61 percent more deadly, which is pretty phenomenal,” the doctor said.

The South African variant, on the other hand, does not have evidence of increased mortality, he said.

While the Johnson and Johnson vaccine does appear to have some reduced effectiveness against the South African variant, it does show effectiveness in preventing illness and appears to be “very strong in preventing severe hospitalization and death” with that strain, said Dobbs.

The AstraZeneca vaccine also appears to be less effective against this variant, he said.

As these variant cases are identified, State Epidemiologist Paul Byers said MSDH is doing a complete investigation to ensure the patient is isolated and contacts are quarantined, along with doing testing to trace further transmission.

Samples are submitted to the CDC weekly to identify potential variants, and the state continues to ramp up its surveillance, said Byers.

He also encouraged people to continue to wear a mask in public.

“We still have some work to do to get ourselves past this, and the emergence of the variant strains is one of the more concerning pieces,” he said.

As of Friday afternoon, Magnolia Regional Health Center reported five patients hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19, an increase of several. The county has not recorded any additional deaths in the last few weeks.

Staff Writer

Jebb Johnston is a 1991 Alcorn Central High School graduate and a 1995 Ole Miss journalism graduate. His primary beats are city and county government.

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