More contagious COVID-19 variant has arrived in Utah, state health department says

COVID-19 vaccines also protect against the ‘UK variant,’ experts believe.

(Image courtesy of CDC) An illustration, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the novel coronavirus. The recently discovered "UK variant" of the virus, which is more contagious, has been found in Utah, the Utah Department of Health reported on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.

The so-called “UK variant” of COVID-19 — a fast-moving and more contagious version of the coronavirus — has arrived in Utah, the state health department said Friday.

A Salt Lake County man between the ages of 25 and 44 tested positive for COVID-19 last month. The B.1.1.7 variant, which was first found in the United Kingdom, was discovered in his case through ongoing genetic sequencing of positive COVID-19 samples by the Utah Public Health Laboratory.

The Salt Lake County man had experienced only mild symptoms of COVID-19, and he was not known to have traveled outside of Utah. The Salt Lake County Health Department has conducted its routine investigation with the case, including contact tracing.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, said it wasn’t a matter of if the “UK variant” would arrive in Utah, but when.

“It’s likely that this variant has been in Utah for a little bit,” Dunn said in a Friday media videoconference. “It is more transmissible. It is more contagious than the other variants of COVID. So now, more than ever, we really need to be practicing good public-health practice by wearing a face mask, staying home when we’re sick, avoiding large gatherings and physical distancing as much as we can.”

Dunn said experts believe that the COVID-19 vaccine, now slowly making its way into the population, will be effective against the “UK variant.”

Still, Dunn warned people to be “extra cautious” to keep the variant’s spread from further straining hospitals. “The more that this variant circulates, the more people will become infected, and the more people will become hospitalized,” she said.

Nationally, health officials say the “UK variant” will likely become the dominant strain in the United States by March.

The variant currently has been detected in 12 states, but it has been diagnosed in only 76 of the 23 million U.S. cases reported to date. However, it’s likely that version of the virus is more widespread in this country than is currently reported, according to scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While it’s considered more infectious than the virus that’s been causing the bulk of U.S. cases so far, there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or is transmitted differently. So mask-wearing, social distancing and hand washing and other prevention strategies can still work, the CDC says.

The Utah Public Health Lab (UPHL) has been performing genomic sequencing of the coronavirus — its technical name is the SARS-CoV-2 virus — since the pandemic’s beginning, with the aim of sequencing 10% of the positive COVID-19 samples identified. The lab sequences samples it identifies as positive, as well as samples submitted routinely by other labs around Utah.

According to the CDC, as of Wednesday the B.1.1.7 variant had been found in 12 states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

The variant was first discovered in the United Kingdom in October, and has become the dominant strain in COVID-19 outbreak there, NPR reported Wednesday. The variant, according to studies, increases the transmissibility of the virus by about 50%.

Governments in the four regions of the UK — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have issued strict lockdowns because of the new strain, and urged people to stay inside their homes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.