New coronavirus strains continue to be identified across the globe, especially in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. The new variants have even reached New Jersey with two cases so far being reported.

David Cennimo, assistant professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and pediatric infectious disease expert, said most people would define a variant as something that has changed enough that we have to be uniquely aware of it.

The variant first seen in the U.K. is the most studied and the most well understood. British health officials noticed their case numbers shot up around the holidays. Cennimo said that was happening at the same time the U.K. was looking at a new virus that's had changes in its genetic code. Could that be accounting for the increase in cases?

For New Jersey, Cennimo said knowing the variants are here is not surprising. But the thing to watch are the state's case numbers.

"Are more people becoming infected than we were seeing in past weeks or that we were projecting to have seen?" he said.

The variants do complicate things if they are more contagious. But Cennimo said the majority of the data suggests that the existing vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are still effective against these variants. If there is enough of a change that the mutation decreases the effectiveness of the vaccine, that could lead to a need for boosters or a need to change the composition of the vaccine.

By their nature, viruses mutate, Cennimo said, but coronaviruses tend to do it less commonly and less drastically than influenza viruses.

To protect yourself, the goal is to stop the chain of transmission. The only way we are driving all these mutations is new people becoming infected. So Cennimo said if we can keep the number of infections down, there would be fewer viruses out there that could change and become new variants.

While the vaccines seem to be working, he said we can't let our guard down. The protective measures people have been taking still work: Wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing and limit time indoors with people outside of immediate family.

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