Oklahoma identifies cluster of 17 cases of COVID-19 variant first detected in India

Dana Branham

The Oklahoma State Department of Health has identified a cluster of 17 recent cases in Oklahoma of a variant of COVID-19 first detected in India.

Three of the cases in the cluster were in people who were fully vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine, health officials said. Two were partially vaccinated at the time their symptoms began. 

There are now a total of 18 confirmed cases of the variant, called B.1.617.2, in Oklahoma, and the cases have been identified across all age groups, according to the Health Department. In each case, the person had symptoms of COVID-19, and none have been hospitalized.

The most recent case onset known to the state Health Department was May 6. 

It's now far easier to get vaccinated for the coronavirus than it was weeks ago in Oklahoma.

What to know about COVID-19 variants

The presence of the variants underscores how important it is for Oklahomans who feel ill to get tested for COVID-19, said Jolianne Stone, Oklahoma's state epidemiologist.

"We urge Oklahomans to get tested if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, even if you have been vaccinated," she said in a statement. "Identifying and tracing new variants is critical to our ability to respond and mitigate community transmission of the virus."

She said COVID-19 variants "present the biggest threat" to maintaining the lower levels of spread of the virus across the state.

"As variants of COVID-19 emerge, it can become more or less transmissible, or can change in other ways — meaning we may need to adjust how we treat it," she said. 

Thirteen of the cases of the B.1.617.2 variant in the cluster were associated with Cleveland County, according to state health officials. It's unclear where the other cases in the cluster were identified, and health officials didn't immediately say what made the cases to be considered a "cluster."

Stone said the state was still working on contact tracing for the cases.

The B.1.617.2 variant is considered a "variant of interest" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was first detected in December. The designation means it may have genetic markers predicted to affect transmissibility, immune response or treatment, according to the CDC. 

COVID-19 vaccinations are still thought to provide protection against variants, especially against severe illness, said Dr. Gitanjali Pai, the state's chief medical officer. She encouraged Oklahomans to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

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Vaccine breakthrough

When someone who has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 contracts the virus — like the three people in the B.1.617.2 cluster identified in Oklahoma, or several members of the New York Yankees — that's known as a vaccine breakthrough case.

Across the U.S., there have been at least 9,245 such cases as of April 26, out of about 95 million people who had been fully vaccinated at that time, according to the CDC. The agency now focuses just on vaccine breakthrough cases that result in hospitalization or death.

Vaccine breakthrough cases are to be expected because no vaccine is perfect, health experts have warned. 

A vaccination isn't a guarantee that you won't be infected, but if you are, it's likely you'll be less sick than you would be if you weren't vaccinated, Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer with the University of Oklahoma, said previously. 

Other variants in Oklahoma

Oklahoma has identified a number of COVID-19 variants across the state, including several variants of concern. 

As of the state's most recent epidemiology report, out of 488 samples sequenced, 156 were the B.1.1.7 variant, also called the U.K. variant. (That total doesn't appear to include the 17 newly reported cases of the B.1.617.2 variant.)

The U.K. variant, along with the California, South Africa and Brazil variants, are considered "variants of concern" and have all been identified in Oklahoma. 

For a variant to be in that category means there's evidence it causes increased transmissibility, more severe disease, a significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies through vaccination or previous infection, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines or failures to detect it through testing, according to the state Health Department.