COVID-19 Variants

What We Know

  • Viruses change all the time—this is normal and expected. These changes can happen when a virus moves from person to person. When a virus changes, the new version is called a variant. There are multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists and health and medical experts are studying these variants to understand how changes to the virus affect how it spreads and how it infects people. To better understand what variants are, how they form, and how they spread, listen to this episode of Public Health Out Loud. 
  • Variants are found all over the world. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is keeping track of these variants and posts updates to a web page about COVID-19 variants.
  • Some variants spread more easily and quickly than other variants. This means they can cause more cases of COVID-19, which can lead to more hospitalizations and more deaths. Some variants may also impact our treatments, vaccines, and tests. We call these “variants of concern.”
  • COVID-19 variants of concern are now dominant in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Department of Health is monitoring these variants and posting data on the COVID-19 Data Tracker.
  • Early studies suggest that the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines may provide some protection against some of the variants, like those found in RI. This is being closely investigated and more studies are underway.
  • We can all help prevent these variants from spreading by following basic guidance to protect your household. This helps Rhode Island’s families, businesses, and economy. Continue to wear your mask, watch your distance, follow quarantine and isolation requirements, get tested often, and get vaccinated when it’s available to you.

What We Don’t Know

Scientists are working to learn more about these variants, and more studies are needed to understand:

  • How widely these variants have spread
  • Whether these variants cause milder or more severe disease in people
  • How these variants may affect current treatments, vaccines, and tests

What Rhode Island is Doing

Rhode Island’s State Health Laboratories coordinates a “sequencing program” in partnership with the CDC and other laboratories. This means we are analyzing random samples of virus circulating in the state to identify differences between these samples and samples we have of the original virus.  

We are sharing the results of these analyses on the Variant page of the COVID-19 Data Tracker.