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In Florida, with its large Brazilian community, worries over Covid variant

The state already has the largest number of cases of the U.K. Covid variant.
Image: Elderly people line up at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination site
People, 65 and older, wait in line at the Sarasota health department's Covid-19 vaccination clinic in Florida on Jan. 4, 2021.Octavio Jones / Reuters file

MIAMI — Even though Teresa Frade was infected with Covid-19 over the summer and already got both doses of the vaccination, she is still apprehensive about visiting her family in Brazil.

The last time she was there was in late February last year, and she returned just before Florida went into lockdown.

Frade, 54, a health care worker in South Florida is not sure if she can get reinfected with the Brazilian variant that has ravaged parts of the South American country and worries whether it can spread here.

Florida leads the country with the highest number of cases caused by the more transmissible and possibly more deadly Covid-19 variant from the United Kingdom, but new concerns are emerging over the potential spread of the Brazilian variant, also more contagious.

Florida has the largest Brazilian population in the United States with an estimated 80,000 who were born in Brazil, and many of whom travel to their native land to visit family. President Joe Biden reinstated travel restrictions to several countries, including Brazil; the restrictions affect non-U.S. citizens.

"It’s not a good time to be traveling," Frade, who has family in Rio de Janeiro, said. Aside from travel restrictions, fears of the Brazilian strain "makes us not want to go."

In the United States, the first known case of the Brazilian variant called P.1 was identified in a Minnesota resident who had recently traveled to Brazil, the state’s health department announced Monday.

Scientists are concerned about this variant because of the surge in infections that has ravaged the city of Manaus in Brazil. The journal Science published a study indicating that 76 percent of the population of Manaus had antibodies in October. But the area has had a second surge in cases since mid-December. The fear is that the set of mutations in P.1 not only make it more transmissible, but it could also affect its ability to recognize antibodies, which may lead to reinfection.

Overall, the South American country has had one of the world’s most rapidly growing Covid-19 epidemics with the Amazon, where Manaus is located, being the worst hit. Manaus has a population of 2 million people.

The second surge has been so devastating on Manaus, their health care system in near collapse, that the city turned to crisis-stricken Venezuela for help as hospitals ran out of oxygen. Venezuela sent five trucks of oxygen last week.

The first known cases of the Brazilian variant were identified in four travelers from Brazil that were sampled during routine screening at an airport outside of Tokyo. Experts had predicted it was only a matter of time before the Brazilian and the U.K. variants appeared in the U.S.

“The importation of P.1 to the U.S. is not surprising. Air passenger volumes from Brazil to the U.S. are large and the variant is increasingly common in at least some parts of Brazil,” said Dr. William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

'Actively looking for the variant'

In Florida, the number of cases caused by the U.K. variant doubled last week and now stands at 92, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Florida’s Department of Health recently ramped up the amount of Covid-19 samples it’s examining for mutations and averaging about ­200 samples a week.

A Florida Health Department spokesperson said in an email that the state is "a national leader in sequencing for mutations" of the Covid-19 virus. As of Jan. 19, the department had sequenced 3,470 Covid-19 specimens.

The spokesperson stated “the Department is actively looking for the variant in Florida, which is why more cases are being discovered in Florida.”

Overall, the U.S. has lagged on sequencing compared to other countries. It’s a lengthy process that takes days to complete, using specimens from Covid-19 diagnostic tests that are normally thrown out. In the U.S., only about 0.3 percent of all cases have been sequenced, according to the nonprofit GISAID Initiative that has a database

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted all restrictions on businesses statewide in September and schools were mandated to open. The state reported 8,408 cases Wednesday. Close to 1.5 million people have received the first dose of Covid-19 vaccinations in Florida.

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