Thanks to more sophisticated testing being done on virus samples in Colorado, officials there say the first detected U.S. case of COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 has been found there. But already, given the patient's lack of travel history, we know that the variant must already be in pretty wide circulation in this country.
The male patient, said to be in his 20s, is reportedly in isolation in Elbert County, Colorado, and contact tracing is underway. As KCNC reports, a Colorado state lab was the first in the U.S. to identify a sample of the variant, first seen in the U.K., and Governor Jared Polis is expected to address the case in a news conference Wednesday morning.
"The individual has no close contacts identified so far, but public health officials are working to identify other potential cases and contacts through thorough contact tracing interviews," state health officials said in a statement. They also said that the individual had no recent travel history.
The new variant is said to be more contagious but not more deadly than the variants that have been found thus far. Health officials have been stressing since news of the variant emerged out of the U.K. that it was likely it had spread without detection to this country as it has elsewhere.
Texas-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Hotez told Houston station KHOU this week that the variant "may already be here and it may be a significant reason why we've seen so much transmission as of late."
The huge spike in new cases in California would suggest that the variant is likely already spreading here and just has not yet been caught in lab screenings of virus samples — something likely to change in the coming days.
It's not clear what scenarios might make the variant more contagious, and its detection has led to a full-scale lockdown of the greater London area in the last week. As the Washington Post reports via preliminary data out of the UK, the chances of a person becoming infected after exposure to a person infected with the new variant appears to be about 50% higher than with other variants of the virus. It remains unclear so far whether the variant simply binds more easily to an infected person's cells, causes a person to shed the virus for longer (which would lead to more infections), or what.
As SF's Director of Public Health Dr. Grant Colfax said in a news briefing Tuesday, "As we learn more [about the variant], we will adjust our efforts, as we have during this pandemic."
He stressed that the same precautions, in terms of social distancing and avoiding all gathering, will prevent the spread of the variant just like they help prevent all others.
"I’m not surprised," said Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday, about the Colorado discovery. "I think we have to keep an eye on it, and we have to take it seriously. We obviously take any kind of mutation that might have a functional significance seriously. But I don’t think we know enough about it to make any definitive statements, except to follow it carefully and study it carefully"