Chicago Laboratory Keeping Close Tabs on Spread of Delta Variant COVID Cases

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As concerns grow over the delta coronavirus variant, which is spreading rapidly across the United States, a Chicago laboratory is tracking cases in the city and providing a glimpse into just how quickly the variant has taken hold.

Scientists at the Regional Innovative Public Health Lab at Rush have been contracted by the city of Chicago to analyze coronavirus samples, tasked with finding out which strains of coronavirus are spreading in the city.

“We just need to know what’s in the city, (to examine) if there is a change in the dominant strains that are here,” Dr. Stefan Green, director of Genomics and Microbiome Core Facility at Rush, said.

The lab has been tracking COVID cases for months, and while the alpha variant has been the dominant strain in the city in recent months, the delta variant is now very much on their radar.

“We did start to see delta variant appearing in the surveillance around the end of May,” Green said.

The number of delta variant cases has been on the rise nationwide, doubling approximately every two weeks, even as the number of positive cases has gone down in Illinois.

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Doctors say that as COVID rates have declined, with positivity rates well under 1% in Illinois, there have been fewer samples to examine, and that means critical data on the spread of variants can be delayed.

The lab says it needs enough virus samples from its six participating hospitals to run genomic sequence testing to identify which variants are spreading in Chicago. Examining that data, even with the help of robots and computers, can take time, further complicating the lab’s mission.

“It’s going to take us about two-to-three days worth of lab work, and probably two days worth of computer work to generate all the reports (for recently acquired samples),” Kevin Kunstman, lab manager of the facility, said.

While doctors at Rush say that while they have yet to see a delta variant case from a person fully vaccinated against COVID, they are still urging residents to be cautious.

“There will be more variants,” Green said. “Encourage everybody to continue doing what they are doing, and (know) we’re not out of the woods yet.”

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