Two U.S. states confirmed cases of a more contagious coronavirus strain that was first identified in the United Kingdom – and more states are likely to get similar infections.
Colorado officials said Wednesday they were investigating a possible second case of the variant, and California confirmed its first case, in the southern part of the state.
“We are aware of one confirmed and another possible case with the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus,” Colorado state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said Wednesday morning at a news conference.
•In Colorado, both of the cases are National Guard soldiers who were deployed to support staffing at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Simla, Colorado, outside Denver, Herlihy said. It was not immediately clear whether the soldiers acquired the virus at the facility or elsewhere, Herlihy said, but scientists were “exploring all possibilities.”
An outbreak at the facility began in mid-December, and 20 of 34 regular staff and all 26 residents tested positive for the coronavirus, Herlihy said. Four residents died.
The soldiers were deployed to the facility Dec. 23 and were tested as routine procedure the next day. The state lab noticed hints of the potential variant. The laboratory confirmed the case and notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The state Health Department deployed a team to the facility Tuesday to collect samples for testing. Herlihy said there was no evidence that the variant virus is circulating in that facility. She noted that the National Guard personnel arrived “long after most of the cases associated with the outbreak had occurred.”
The nursing home said it expected to have the results of the state’s tests in the next few days. “We will continue to work closely with the state while following the CDC’s infection control measures,” Randy Fitzgerald, Good Samaritan Society regional vice president, said in a statement.
The confirmed case was a man in his 20s who experienced mild symptoms. He was in isolation at home in Arapahoe County, Colorado, Herlihy said. The second possible case was also in isolation at a hotel in Lincoln County. Neither person had traveled internationally in recent weeks, suggesting the variant may be spreading in the community.
•In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom confirmed the state’s first case of the variant Wednesday afternoon. He did not immediately provide details about the patient.
“We likely will be seeing reports from more states,” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious diseases specialist, said in a video conversation with Newsom. “This is something that’s expected.”
San Diego County officials on Wednesday said a local man in his 30s with no travel history tested positive for the new strain. They believe there are other cases of the varient in the region that have not yet been detected.
Southern California’s hospitals are already strained by the virus, with Intensive Care Units in the region reporting 0% availability, according to state data.
Scientists in the United Kingdom said the variant strain, known as B.1.1.7, is more contagious than previously identified strains but not more severe. According to models, it has an increased transmission rate of 70% compared with other variants in the U.K.
“If you’re ill, instead of making only two or three other people sick, you might actually spread it to four or five people,” said Eric France, chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “If it’s more transmissible, that means we’ll have more cases in our communities … more hospitalizations, more ICU beds being filled, and the potential of overwhelming our health care system.”
The strain was first spotted in September in southeastern England and accounted for a quarter of cases in London by November. By the week of Dec. 9, it was responsible for 60% of cases in the city.
As Britain cheered the emergency authorization Wednesday of a coronavirus vaccine produced by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, the government extended its highest tier of restrictions to three-quarters of England’s population, beyond London and the southeast to large swaths of central, northern and southwest England. Dozens of nations have banned travel from the U.K.
“Our strategy throughout has been to suppress the virus until a vaccine can make us safe. Suppressing the virus has got a whole lot harder because of the new variant – and we must take more action today,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, this new variant is now spreading across most of England, and cases are doubling fast.”
The strain has been identified in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Japan, Singapore, India, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. South Africa identified a strain similar to the one first identified in the U.K., but it emerged independently of the U.K. strain and is not related to it, according to the CDC.
The Colorado lab identified the confirmed variant through analysis of testing samples. Scientists sequenced the viral genome and found eight mutations specific to the spike protein gene associated with this variant, according to the governor’s office.
The CDC said last week that the strain could have entered the country without detection. As of Dec. 22, viruses had been sequenced from about 51,000 of 17 million U.S. cases, the agency said.
“The arrival of this variant in the United States was expected,” Dr. Henry Walke, COVID-19 incident manager at the CDC, said Wednesday. Walke said officials don’t know if the variant identified in South Africa is in the USA.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, mutates regularly and acquires about one new mutation in its genome every two weeks, according to the CDC. The U.K. variant has several mutations that affect the “spiked protein” on the virus surface that attaches to human cells.
Researchers said COVID-19 vaccines will probably protect against the new variant, but data is needed. The virus would “likely need to accumulate multiple mutations in the spike protein to evade immunity induced by vaccines or by natural infection,” according to the CDC.
“From what we know from experience with this mutation and other mutations, it’s unlikely to have a large impact on vaccine-induced immunity or existing immunity from previous strains,” said Dr. Greg Armstrong, director of the CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection.
Armstrong said it is unclear how the variants may respond to COVID-19 treatments.
Federal and state officials urged Americans to continue taking public health precautions.
“This is the home stretch, the last leg of the marathon,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said. “The last thing we want to do is trip and fall before we finish the race.”