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Colorado man first in U.S. diagnosed with mutant COVID-19 strain; second case suspected – Colorado Springs Gazette

A Colorado man is the first in the U.S. diagnosed with a new COVID-19 mutation that United Kingdom officials recently warned was significantly more contagious, according to state officials.

The man, diagnosed in Elbert County, is in his 20s, with no travel history and no close contacts yet identified, state officials said in a Tuesday news release, adding that a news conference to be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday would provide more details. The man remains in isolation, and contact tracing continues. 

A second case in the county is suspected, officials said. Both individuals were working in Simla, about an hour northeast of Colorado Springs, but neither are residents of the county, Dwayne Smith, director of public health for Elbert County, told Gazette sister publication Colorado Politics Tuesday.

“I’m not surprised,” by the mutant virus being identified in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post Tuesday. “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.”

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No cases of the variant are being investigated in El Paso County, Michelle Hewitt, a spokeswoman for the county health department, said late Tuesday.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is the same one discovered in Europe earlier this month. It triggered alarm when announced by Britain’s prime minister and caused dozens of countries to ban flights from the United Kingdom, as well as strict lockdown measures in southern England. A similar variant has emerged in South Africa and potentially in Nigeria.

B.1.1.7 appears to be 70% more transmissible than the dominant strain of COVID-19, Colorado state officials said last week. The World Health Organization has said while it may spread more easily from person to person, it isn’t necessarily more dangerous or deadly. A recent briefing on the mutation from England’s health department noted no statistically significant difference in hospitalization or fatality rates, nor in the likelihood of reinfection.

The fact that the infected Colorado man had no known travel history or close contacts identified so far, “suggests there is more than one case in Colorado,” Dr. Elizabeth Carlton, associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and member of the state’s COVID-19 modeling team, told The Gazette Tuesday.

When looking at data from the U.K., “what’s remarkable is how quickly this new variant took over” a portion of eastern England, from being on the periphery to dominating COVID diagnoses within a month, Carlton said.

Those infected with the new variant, when compared with those infected by the currently dominant virus in the U.S., appear to be more likely to infect others, including members of their household, Carlton said, citing reports from the U.K.

But it’s “not a time for people to panic,” she cautioned, adding that quick, strategic trips to the store are likely to still be relatively low risk, and that the most risky interactions will likely continue to be indoor conversations among those without masks.

It’s too early to tell whether current public health recommendations of mask-wearing, hand-washing and maintaining 6-foot distance from other people will be sufficient, she said, or if lockdowns will again become necessary. It should take about two weeks to see an increase in cases, if one will be observed, she added.

Those infected with the mutant strain possibly “are excreting more of the virus” when compared with the strain currently dominant in the U.S., “or that it takes less virus to become infected,” Carlton said. If so, shorter conversations could become more risky, she added.

As to whether the vaccine should work on this new strain: “People are scrambling to figure that out,” she said. “There’s no evidence to suggest otherwise.”

In general Colorado COVID-19 news:

– Wednesday’s news conference will include information on adjustments to the state’s vaccine distribution list, according to state officials.

– New infections reported to the state continue generally downward, with 1,158 new cases announced Tuesday — the lowest number since Oct. 21, and down from a peak of 6,618 cases announced Nov. 12.

– As of Tuesday the number of deaths directly caused by COVID was 3,803, while the number of deaths among patients who had COVID at their time of death, including those who died of other causes, was 4,687.

– The percent of individuals tested for COVID-19 whose results return positive was just over 6% Monday, half of what it was in November and early December. The World Health Organization recommended a rate of no more than 5% among communities wishing to reopen this spring.

– Nearly three-quarters of the state’s acute care and intensive care beds were in use as of Tuesday, figures that have held relatively steady after a recent slight decline, according to state data. Nearly 40% of adult critical care ventilators were in use Tuesday.

Colorado Politics’ Marianne Goodland and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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