The new COVID-19 variants that have infiltrated other states have not yet been detected in Maine, but public health experts say it’s only a matter of time before they arrive here.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Tuesday that the agency is “on the lookout” for the variants and it is “epidemiologically likely” they will be discovered in Maine. But so far the state has tested for variants in only a tiny fraction of the samples it has processed.

Whether the variants will result in a new spike in cases or have little to no effect on the shape of the pandemic depends on a number of factors, including how many COVID-19 vaccinations are given in the next several weeks and whether most Maine people wear masks and follow social distancing measures. Many health experts say that wearing two masks can help to keep the new variants in check.

Dr. Meghan May, a professor of microbiology and infectious disease at the University of New England, said the variant from the United Kingdom is much more contagious and has the potential to become the dominant strain in the United States. But she said it’s difficult to predict.

“Are we about to get whacked really hard by this new variant?” May asked. “It’s hard to know where we are right now because we have a limited set of data.”

COVID-19 tests do not routinely look for the variants, so the United States is left with a patchwork system of searching for them in a small percentage of the samples to try to gauge their prevalence. In Maine, 820 tests have been run looking for the variants, with none found so far, the Maine CDC said. While infection levels have gone down in recent weeks, in an average week between 2,000 and 3,000 people in Maine will test positive for COVID-19.

Nationwide, 467 cases of the U.K. variant had been detected through Jan. 31, as well as three cases of the South African variant and one case of the Brazilian variant, according to the U.S. CDC.

Michael Thomas Osterholm, an epidemiologist with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, compared the potential of the U.K. variant to a “Category 5 hurricane” during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

But the strategy to fight the variants is the same as fighting regular COVID-19, said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician from South Portland and an infectious disease expert. They are the “boring” measures of physical distancing, masking and avoiding gatherings, which public health experts have been telling the public about for nearly a year, she said.

“We have the tools to stop transmission, and now we have vaccines,” Blaisdell said.  “The more people get sick, that creates a laboratory for the virus to create a new variant.”

May said double masking is a good idea while waiting for vaccines to crush the virus. The U.K. variant may be more infectious because it may take fewer virus particles to get infected.

“The double masking will cut down on the number of particles you can inhale and keep you under that infectious dose,” May said.

While there is no consensus on which mask material should be the over-layer, a September study in Matter, a scholarly journal, said that adding a nylon layer to a cloth mask could reduce particles breathed in by 15 to 37 percent, depending on the fit of the mask. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in media interviews recently that he believed double masking is a good idea and made “common sense.”

The U.K. variant has already spread to at least 32 states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. While not more deadly, the U.K. variant has proved to be more contagious.

In Ireland and the U.K., the variant caused cases to skyrocket while those countries had just started getting their vaccination programs off the ground. The U.K. and Ireland continue to be in lockdown through at least early March, as officials try to buy time for the immunization program to ramp up.

The U.K. variant is about 30 to 70 percent more contagious than the most common strain of COVID-19, according to the U.S. CDC. May said the best research she has seen pegs the U.K. variant as 52 percent more transmissible.

That means, if left unchecked, with exponential growth it could quickly become the dominant variant in the U.S. despite the low number of variant cases currently detected.

In Maine, the seven-day average of daily new cases has declined from 626 on Jan. 15 to 323 on Tuesday, according to the Maine CDC. Nationally, seven-day averages have declined from 247,000 on Jan. 15 to 143,000 on Tuesday. But those declines could reverse if the U.K. variant starts a new wave.

So the race is on to roll out vaccines, which are still effective against the variants.

“Even though this variant is more transmissible, it looks like if we can really get our act together with the vaccine campaigns, then we will be OK,” May said.

How quickly the national vaccine campaign will accelerate is unclear. The Biden administration is working with pharmaceutical companies to ramp up production, and has enlisted the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense to help with the rollout.

Vaccine supplies coming to Maine and the other states increased by 16 percent per week this week and for the following two weeks, and the Biden administration on Tuesday announced an additional 5 percent boost for the next three weeks. Even so, supplies will have to be much more plentiful to have a robust vaccination program. With the latest increases, the state will receive about 21,000 doses next week, but Shah has estimated that Maine would need about 50,000 doses per week for the immunization program to not be limited by supply.

“We’re in a race to see whether we can out-vaccinate the virus,” Shah said.

Scientists are studying the vaccines’ efficacy against the variants from South Africa and Brazil. Though the South African variant could be better at evading some of the vaccines, a new vaccine that only requires one dose, by Johnson & Johnson, performed well against the South African variant. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to go before federal regulators for approval in the coming weeks and could be used in the U.S. this spring, alongside the already-approved Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, both of which require two doses. Moderna is developing a booster shot for the South African strain.

May said the South African variant does not appear to be more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus, which makes it less likely that it will become the dominant strain in the United States in comparison to the U.K. variant. The Brazil variant may be responsible for re-infecting people who had previously contracted COVID-19, but May said she is skeptical of the data coming out of Brazil.

Still, May said, to prevent the mutation of new variants that could evade vaccines, “the best possible thing we can do is get everyone vaccinated as soon as humanly possible.”

May said variants to COVID-19 were always expected, but the good news is the vaccines still work against all of them, even the South African variant. The science is still ongoing, so much of what will be learned will be in retrospect, after the pandemic is over, she said.

“We’ll see what happens next,” May said. “There’s so much we still don’t know because we’re not finished with this disease yet.”

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