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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Health Director: Mecklenburg County Likely Has COVID-19 Variants Now

Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris
Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris

Mecklenburg County residents should assume more contagious variants of the coronavirus are already in the Charlotte area, county Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said Friday.

Harris said the county’s one identified case of the variant from the U.K., found last week, likely means there are other cases that have not been found.

"We are not testing specifically for it, but the assumption is that we do have that variant, along with the original strain, in our community," Harris said.

Harris said the person who tested positive for the U.K. variant did not respond to calls from the health department to gather information for contact tracing.

Two cases of another variant from South Africa were found in South Carolina on Thursday. Harris said a third variant of the coronavirus originating in Brazil is likely also here. Scientists have found these variants can be 50% more contagious than the original coronavirus strain, though it's unclear whether they are more deadly.

Harris said the best protection against the virus is still for people to follow the stay-at-home directive, and to wear masks and socially distance.

The plan for CMS to reopen schools should continue, Harris said, because studies show schools are not a big source of viral spread. In an extension of the directive issued Thursday through the end of February, Harris cited a CDC study that said in-person classes can be safe with "appropriate safety measures."

Meanwhile, the county's hotel for homeless residents to quarantine and isolate is now in overflow status. Harris said an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Roof Above men’s shelter has led to 87 cases, 85 of them among residents.

The hotel has 123 rooms, and is meant to isolate homeless residents when they test positive or have been exposed to a positive case.

"So we continue to work with them to look at other options for housing those individuals in the community in a safe way," Harris said.

Harris said she believed only one resident had been hospitalized. The county has offered limited vaccinations to residents older than 65 at the shelter and health care workers on staff.

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Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.