Hallberg's Picture of Health

Hallberg: COVID-19 variants are bad news — the good news is, we know what works

Virus Outbreak Variant
SARS-CoV-2 virus particles that cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. Viruses are constantly mutating, with coronavirus variants circulating around the globe.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories via AP

There's a lot of concern in Minnesota now that at least two COVID-19 variants — those first discovered in the United Kingdom and Brazil — have been identified in the state. There's still a lot we don't know about them.

But our regular medical analyst, Dr. Jon Hallberg, says we do know that such variants are normal.

“The virus has been circulating in the human population millions and millions of times, and as it makes copies of itself, it’s very easy for, say, one amino acid to be swapped out for another. It’s a mistake. Sometimes that mistake may just disappear, or it may stick,” he said. “And if that mutation sticks around, that’s what leads to a variant. And that is a really, really common thing to have happen among viruses.”

Hallberg, who is medical director of the University of Minnesota Physicians Mill City Clinic, said the public would be right to worry, though. These variants spread faster, which could overwhelm the health care system.

Still, he said there is good news: Existing vaccines are still effective against them, though some are a little less so, and we already know how to prevent the spread. Masking up, washing our hands, social distancing and limiting trips outside the home still work.

Hallberg joined MPR News host Tom Crann. Click play on the audio player above to hear their conversation.