First U.S. case of new coronavirus strain identified in Colorado

Scientists believe vaccines already in circulation offer protection against new strain

The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Labs)

The first U.S. case of a new, more contagious strain of the novel coronavirus has been identified in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday.

Colorado’s Laboratory Services Division confirmed that a man in his 20s has contracted a case of COVID-19-causing variant B.1.1.7, according to a statement from Polis’ office. The patient hasn’t traveled recently, the statement said.

He will remain in isolation in rural Elbert County — about an hour and a half southeast of Denver — until he’s cleared by public health officials as no longer contagious, according to the statement.

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The coronavirus variant, first discovered in the United Kingdom, is thought to be as much as 70% more contagious than the more common, widespread strain. However, it isn’t associated with more severe symptoms.

Scientists believe the recently authorized vaccine from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as one developed by Moderna, offer protection against the new strain.

“The health and safety of Coloradans is our top priority and we will closely monitor this case, as well as all COVID-19 indicators, very closely,” Polis said in the statement. “We are working to prevent spread and contain the virus at all levels.”

The state laboratory confirmed the case and notified the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the statement. Public health officials haven’t yet identified any close contacts who might have contracted the disease from the Colorado man, or anyone to whom he could have spread it.

Officials are still working to identify other potential cases and contacts, the statement said.

Jill Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, speaks during a news briefing on Oct. 16, 2020, about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

“The fact that Colorado has detected this (variant) first in the nation is a testament to the sophistication of Colorado’s response and the talent of CDPHE’s scientist and lab operations,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in the statement. “We are currently using all the tools available to protect public health and mitigate the spread of this variant.”

Like many counties in the state, Elbert is currently in the red level of Colorado’s COVID-19 dial system, meaning indoor dining is closed and gyms must limit capacity to 10%. The county reported 442 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over the previous two weeks, according to CDPHE.

Based on population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, that equates to about 118 cases over the past two weeks in a county that’s home to around 26,700 people. More than 10% of COVID-19 tests in Elbert County have come back positive over the same period, according to CDPHE.

While other countries have closed their borders to travelers from the United Kingdom in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus variant, the United States has not followed suit — leading the CDC to speculate Dec. 22 that the variant could have already been circulating in the United States at the time.

On Dec. 25, the CDC announced that starting Dec. 27, all passengers arriving from the U.K. would require proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

“I want to thank our scientists and dedicated medical professionals for their swift work and ask Coloradans to continue our efforts to prevent disease transmission by wearing masks, standing six feet apart when gathering with others, and only interacting with members of their immediate household,” Polis said.

State officials will provide further details about the new case at a press conference Dec. 30, according to the statement.

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