How testing and contact tracing protected University of Memphis students from COVID-19 mutant strains | Opinion – Commercial Appeal

One case found at the university led to 29 mutant strains cases. On Feb. 20 we saw our last case of the mutant UK strain on campus. In the following weeks over a thousand tests have been negative.

We are entering a new phase of our war against the COVID-19 virus in Shelby County.

With large segments of the population being immunized, the vaccines are in many ways providing air-cover, yet on the ground we are still in a hand-to-hand combat against the virus and its variants.

Last month at the University of Memphis, we won an important battle.

On Feb 7, two people in the University of Memphis athletic department tested positive for COVID-19 during routine asymptomatic testing. But these cases were not ordinary.

The initial test had an “S-drop” or a marker of the possible mutant strain, specifically the B117 or the UK mutation.

Within hours of the result, AEL laboratories alerted the university and sent the sample for sequencing or genetic fingerprinting.

Fingerprinting looks for the mutations in the nucleic acid of the mRNA. These mutations alter the structure of the spike protein which gives the virus it’s crown like features, and give the mutant virus “superpowers.’In effect the N501Y mutation on the UK strain makes it 50% more transmissible and 30% more virulent.

For this reason, it is essential for us to know if we are dealing with the mutant virus.

Over the past two months the City of Memphis has encouraged and assisted labs to develop local capacity to rapidly conduct sequencing for mutant strains, for such a scenario.

Testing for variant cases
In early February, while the laboratory sequenced, our team at the U of M began wide-spread testing of students and faculty. Each day tens and hundreds were tested even while the city was blanketed with snow.

As an example, on Feb. 19 we tested 510 persons and nine were positive. As it turned out, all were the highly transmissible mutant UK strain.

Without the testing we would have been flying blind.

Testing helped us understand both how the virus was advancing and how to stop it. Yet, today not enough people understand the importance of testing and fewer and fewer people are getting tested.

But testing alone is not sufficient to control the mutant strain. We had to trace each and every positive and their contacts and then their contacts, with guidance from the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force.

As we uncovered positive cases, we placed them in strict isolation and their contacts in quarantine. Over the past year in our county, contact tracing has gone by the wayside, largely because the burden of daily new cases was enormous. With fewer cases now, we can do effective real time tracing.

Testing and tracing are not an individual’s decision or a public health official’s function, it is a leadership decision. At our institution we are committed to it. When deployed in strategic fashion, it can help halt the advance of the virus. We ask other institutions, larger corporations, business owners, small employers to do the same.

Once the mutant strain begins to spread into community transmission, it will likely cause another wave much like it did in England, Italy, Germany and France.

Testing and contact tracing are vital
We need to recognize our best immediate solution: surveillance or assurance testing, extensive testing after a positive case, partial sequencing of every positive case, and early-tracing of every case by the institution or employers with assistance from the health department.

In the end, one case found at the university led to 29 mutant strains cases. On Feb. 20 we saw our last case of the mutant UK strain on campus. In the following weeks over a thousand tests have been negative. Quick, coordinated and strategic action is needed to stop the mutant strains.

Without testing and tracing the mutant strain could spread easily on a campus with over 22,000 students. The virus is not forgiving, it seeks vulnerable people, those who are not vaccinated or not previously infected.

In a study conducted at U of M, team of researchers showed that only 40% of the general population, based on blood samples taken during a routine doctor visit, were immune to COVID-19. We need this number to be 80% to reach herd immunity.

It is incumbent upon institutions, employers and businesses to do their part to contain the virus until the cavalry of vaccines arrive.

Ignoring the virus and its mutations or wishful thinking is a recipe for disaster. We can prevent another wave from the mutant strain if all businesses and employers followed the University’s best practice example. It’s our best hope of a speedy recovery towards normalcy, and not proclaiming victory prematurely.

Source: Commercial Appeal