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Public health experts concerned about variants spreading through unvaccinated people

Variants of COVID-19 are expected, but the rate at which they spread is worrying doctors.

TAMPA, Fla. — Florida has reported more than 3,500 cases of COVID-19 infections caused by variants to the Centers for Disease Control. There have been three identified in the state, the B.1.1.7, P.1 and B.1.

Right now, less than 30 percent of Florida's population is fully vaccinated, raising a red flag to public health experts.

"We have an oversupply of vaccines and tests, meaning they're being underutilized. Large numbers of unvaccinated people create a reservoir for the virus to mutate naturally. It's what viruses do and it's what this virus does really well," explained Dr. Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida.

The mutation of COVID-19 is natural and expected, but if it spreads in an uncontrolled manner, we face another crisis. All three vaccines currently available in the United States, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are believed to protect vaccinated people from the current mutated variants of the virus. If the virus continues to mutate, spreading rapidly through unvaccinated groups, there's a chance the vaccines could no longer be effective.

 "You'd have a new variant and it could be completely immune to the vaccine and we'd have to re-vaccinate the entire population and that creates a nasty tidal wave behind the one we have just gotten through," said Dr. Wolfson.

Dr. Wolfson said this situation isn't far-fetched because we're seeing it right now in Brazil and India. Researchers say the B.1.1.7 variant spreads more quickly and efficiently than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, meaning it's harder to control once it's already started to spread. 

So, if large numbers of Americans choose not to get vaccinated, the more contagious variants can spread quickly, changing as it spreads from person to person, making it harder to identify since current widely available COVID-19 testing doesn't detect the variants and therefore making it harder to contain. So doctors say the best thing you can do is get vaccinated.

In the Tampa Bay area, the vaccine is available to anyone 18 and older. Those 16 and older can receive the Pfizer vaccine with parental permission. There are local, state and federal sites where you can get a dose.

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