(CN) — A National Guard member deployed to aid a rural Colorado nursing home has been identified as the first American known to contract a particularly contagious variant of Covid-19.
“This is unlikely to be the first person with the variant here in the U.S., there are likely many in the northeastern part of the state, but I’m proud our scientists have identified it,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis in a video conference Wednesday.
“There is a lot we don’t know, but of course our scientists here and in the United Kingdom are studying and monitoring this variant,” Polis added.
While the B.1.1.7 variant of Covid-19 — first reported this month in the U.K. — appears to be more transmissible than other previously identified types of SARS-CoV-2, it does not seem to make people experience a worse illness.
Also Wednesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom appeared on Facebook with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, and revealed the variant has surfaced in Southern California. While Newsom offered no other details, Fauci said he was not surprised the variant is now in the nation’s most populous state.
Colorado’s case stems from Dec. 23, when the Colorado National Guard sent six members in response to an outbreak at the Good Samaritan Society Nursing Home in Simla, Colorado, where 80% of staff have been infected with Covid-19 along with all 26 residents. The facility additionally reported four residents have died from the disease, which is currently the third leading cause of death in the country behind heart disease and cancer.
Of 24 people tested by the state, only one National Guard member appears to have contracted the B.1.1.7 variant. While analysis is ongoing, a second National Guard member with concerning results is isolating at a hotel. Neither have recently traveled internationally.
The state health department is investigating whether the variant was present in the nursing facility or contracted through other personal contacts. People who came into contact with the National Guard members have been ordered to isolate.
“When we say the variant has been detected, we meant a new strain of the virus has been identified, it has a distinct molecular sequence in the Spike or S gene,” said Dr. Emily Travanty, scientific director of the laboratory services division in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Colorado scientists identified the B.1.1.7 variant during a routine nasal swab test, which identified two key markers for Covid-19 — the N gene and OFR1ab — but failed to identify the S gene. Further analysis of the sample’s RNA sequence revealed several other mutations associated with the variant.
The “S drop out profile” is one of variant B.1.1.7’s signature traits which allow public health researchers to identify it. The state has been looking for the S dropout profile since data on the variant was first released. Travanty said the state is conducting full genome sequencing on suspicious virus samples.
“I understand that news of the variant is concerning to many of us, but thanks to the advanced sequencing processes we have put in place, the state public health laboratory was able to quickly detect this first example of B.1.1.7 variant in the U.S., positioning us to take swift action,” Travanty said.
The state lab is currently processing 80% of tests the same day they were taken. Statewide, 60% of tests are processed same day.
Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the department of epidemiology at the University of Colorado Anschultz, said the transmissibility of the variant is a public health concern.
“The virus has been mutating ever since the epidemic started, but this strain seems to be marked by 17 mutations and reports in the United Kingdom estimate that the transmissibility is about 56% greater,” Samet said in an interview.
While there are concerns about the outsized impact of the disease on rural communities like Simla, Samet noted Colorado as a whole has successfully reduced Covid-19 infections over the last month.
“In Colorado, the epidemic curve has been on a downswing for three or four weeks and the number of patients in hospitals dropped from coming close to 1,800 down to about 1,060 today,” Samet said. “Hopefully, the health care system can accommodate either a surge from Christmas mingling or deal with this increased transmissibility.”
To date, Elbert County, where Simla is located, has reported 959 Covid cases and nine deaths. With Colorado confirming an average of 2,219 new daily cases over the last week, most of the state is under code red restrictions indicating severe risk of infection.
Still, Polis encouraged people to have hope that with the rollout of vaccines, the end of the pandemic is in sight.
“We’re rounding third base,” Polis said. “We don’t want to trip and fall before we reach the end. There’s a lot of temptation, there’s a holiday called New Year’s coming up and we all want to put 2020 in the rearview mirror, but I would hate to see the state set back five or six weeks.”
As creative alternatives to New Year’s gatherings, Polis suggested making snow angels at midnight and claimed to be first person to sled in 1989, 1990 and 1991.
“We used to pass our New Years in Vail when I was growing up, so what we would do is we would wait until New Year’s and then we’d all go out and see who could be the first one to sled in the New Year,” Polis said, admitting his sledding record was beat in 1992.
The pre-print identifying the mutations of B.1.1.7 was only published on Dec. 18. Since then, cases of the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01, have been identified in Australia, Denmark, Italy, Iceland and the Netherlands, according to the World Health Organization.