On December 30, Governor Jared Polis confirmed that the first U.S. case of a COVID-19 variant initially identified in the United Kingdom had been found in Colorado; the infected individual is a Colorado National Guard member who'd been deployed to help out at a nursing home in the small Elbert County community of Simla, approximately 48 miles northeast of Colorado Springs — a place where mask use continues to be lousy.
Since then, the strain, known clinically as B.1.1.7, has turned up in at least three other states, as well as more than fifteen countries. While the variant is said to be far more contagious than the novel coronavirus that's rampaged across the globe, much of the information that's reached the public has been confusing and contradictory, leaving people unclear about whether the development is negligible or a new reason to panic.
We reached out to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment with the questions to which readers most want answers; the responses we received represent a mixture of the reassuring and the concerning. For instance, the CDPHE refutes the presumption that B.1.1.7 is widespread in Colorado, as suggested by a former Denverite now living in the U.K. — but should it become more common, the department concedes that it will be even harder to control than standard COVID-19.
The department also weighed in on the ongoing investigation into the strain's arrival in Colorado, how current safety protocols measure up to the new challenge, the effectiveness of vaccines against it and much more. Here's the lowdown:
Westword: How would you describe the major differences between common COVID-19 and the variant strain?
CDPHE: The primary difference is that the variant seems to be more transmissible. Patients are still getting the same symptoms — fever, cough, fatigue — but if they get sick with this variant of COVID, instead of infecting, on average, two or three others, they might infect four or five others. This will speed up the spread of the virus in our community, making that curve we see of new cases even steeper. The more cases we spread, the sooner our hospitals, nursing homes and intensive-care units could be overwhelmed.
This new variant doesn’t seem more deadly: Current research suggests that your risk of being really sick or hospitalized is not higher if you are infected with the new variant compared to the old one.
How did investigators discover the first case?
Our investigation and contact-tracing efforts are ongoing, but at this time we are aware of one confirmed and another possible case with the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus.
Both cases are Colorado National Guard personnel who were deployed to support staffing at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Simla, Colorado. Their deployment at the facility began on December 23. The nursing home has an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19. Cases of COVID-19 were first identified in the facility in mid-December (one confirmed resident, two confirmed staff) following routine testing.
As part of their deployment to support facilities like this that are having staffing shortages due to COVID-19 outbreaks, National Guard personnel are routinely tested for COVID-19 while deployed to support state COVID response. These individuals were tested for their deployment on December 24, and that testing was performed at the state lab.
The lab initially performed the diagnostic PCR test on the sample and found that the sample was positive for COVID-19 with strong signals for the N gene and ORF1ab (both are detected when a person has COVID-19), but the signal for the S gene was not detected. When the S gene doesn’t register in the testing, it is called an "S Drop Out Profile," and it is considered an essential signature for this variant. The sample was flagged for further investigation. Scientists then sequenced the viral genome from the patient sample and found eight mutations specific to the spike protein gene associated with this variant. Genome sequencing is a molecular profiling of the entire viral RNA sequence. Those sequencing results were finalized on December 29.
Public-health officials are doing a thorough investigation of both cases, attempting to identify where they may have been infected and who they were in contact with while they were infectious.
To determine if the B.1.1.7 variant was circulating in the facility, we deployed a team to the facility [January 4] to collect specimens from staff and residents. Additional specimens will be collected [on January 5] and tested for B.1.1.7 at the state lab. Initial results from this testing have not provided evidence of the variant virus in the facility.
Is it the CDPHE's belief that the variant strain may be in more states than have identified it thus far?
The variant strain is likely to exist in more states than have been identified so far. More labs are looking for the variant now, so additional cases will probably be discovered.
Does the strain's discovery in Colorado speak to the effectiveness of the state's system in terms of not only identifying common COVID-19 cases, but in watching out for any variants in ways that may surpass efforts in other states?
Yes. The Colorado state lab was the first in the country to quickly identify the variant through sophisticated analysis of testing samples. The state lab has been looking for the variant since it was first identified in the U,K. The state lab performs surveillance sequencing on a subset of COVID-19 positive samples from across the state to look for the B.1.1.7 variant and others that may be present.
If additional cases of the variant are identified, will the CDPHE be making the number publicly available, so the average person will be able to track it?
We will announce positive cases as they are discovered.
Is it likely that more people are carrying the variant strain than we know about at present — and if so, what's the best guess about how many more?
It’s likely more people have the variant strain, but it would be difficult to estimate the number. At this time, we do not believe the B.1.1.7 variant is widespread in Colorado.
Our state lab has expanded surveillance for the variant. We are screening every sample submitted for testing at the state lab for signatures of the variant and sequencing all samples with that signature. We also have expanded our statewide sequencing surveillance program across the state and have asked all labs that can look for the variant to send us every positive test that has the variant signature. In addition, we’ve asked specific labs across the state to send us a weekly batch of all positive tests from their facilities. We are hoping to sequence 60-100 samples weekly in addition to the targeted sequencing from the samples we typically receive and analyze.
In addition, our case investigators are conducting in-depth case investigation to determine how many individuals had contact with the confirmed and suspected cases and providing them with quarantine instructions.
If the variant strain is more widespread in Colorado than we know, are there any safety protocols that need to be changed in order to better protect the public?
The same protocols are effective for protection against the strain. Everyone should wear masks, practice physical distancing, wash their hands frequently, and limit contact with anyone outside their own household.
Should people shorten the amount of time they spend conversing within six feet of individuals outside their household to less than ten or fifteen minutes, even if masked, because the variant strain is more contagious — especially if the masks are cloth?
The same protocols are effective for protection against the strain.
Should other measures be stepped up as well in light of the variant strain, and if so, how?
Regardless of the new strain, Coloradans need to continue to follow all public-health protocols. It is more important than ever to work together to stop disease transmission of both the common COVID-19 and the variant strain.
Does the spread of the variant strain threaten the progress Colorado has made in recent weeks to get the virus back under control — or should current safety protocols keep it in check?
At this time, we do not believe the B.1.1.7 variant is widespread in Colorado. If it were to become widespread, COVID transmission could be more challenging to control than it has been with the common strain.
Are the two vaccines in the early stages of distribution in Colorado thought to be as effective against the variant strain as common COVID-19?
Scientists believe that the vaccine will be effective in providing immunity against the B.1.1.7 strain.
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