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University of Portland reports case of more contagious coronavirus variant

Taylor Jones processes COVID-19 tests, March 25, 2020 at OHSU.
Taylor Jones processes COVID-19 tests, March 25, 2020 at OHSU.

Oregon has its first case of the new, more contagious U.K. variant of COVID-19, the Oregon Health Authority announced on Friday.

On Saturday, the University of Portland reported that it was a staff member previously diagnosed with COVID-19 who had been found to have been infected with the U.K. variant.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, called the detection of the first case of this variant strain in Oregon a concern.

“As we learn more about this case and the individual who tested positive for this strain, OHA continues to promote effective public health measures, including wearing masks, maintaining six feet of physical distance, staying home, washing your hands and avoiding gatherings and travel,” he said in a statement.

Multnomah County said its public health staff would be working Friday evening and through the weekend with the individual infected by the new variant strain on their isolation plan, contacts and any possible exposures.

“Confirming this strain locally is distressing,” said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. “Until we have enough vaccine, we must continue using face masks, distancing and limiting our social interactions.”

The university said the staff member has been in isolation since their initial diagnosis. Community members who were known to have come into close contact with the diagnosed staff member have been in quarantine since last Monday. The university said so far, neither the diagnosed staff member nor the people in quarantine have developed symptoms.

The variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, raised alarms as cases were identified around the world. Because it spreads so quickly, as the new variant takes over hospitalizations and deaths increase.

Although the new variant of COVID-19 is more contagious than the ones currently dominating in the U.S., scientists say it is not more deadly.

However, it does present greater dangers because it can spread so rapidly. That characteristic prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to implement lockdowns stricter than any seen since spring.

For several weeks, the variant has been popping up around the country: first in Colorado, then New York, Georgia, Texas, California and several other states.

Unlike other countries, which have undertaken massive efforts to track the virus’s genome as it mutates and evolves, the United States has investigated the genome of very few cases of COVID-19. Instead, efforts to track the virus have been patchwork and primarily relied on individual states. The map of where the U.K. variant has been found in the US is essentially a map of where scientists are looking.

Scientists have hypothesized that the U.K. variant was already circulating in the US, long before the first American cases were identified. Research published on Friday said that according to models, the new variant, dubbed B.1.1.7, could become dominant in the U.S. by March.

The model found that early intervention, like stricter social distancing rules, could help slow the spread of the new strain, buying time so that states can vaccinate more people and get closer to herd immunity.

The virus doesn’t seem to last in the air longer than already-circulating COVID-19 variants. But it has several mutations on a key virus protein that make it easier for the virus to get into human cells. Humans have evolved to be adept at killing viruses. Usually, if you only inhale a few, your body can fight them off. But because the U.K. variant is better at getting inside our cells, it takes less of the virus to make you sick.

And that means people need to be more careful. Some activities previously considered low-risk, like going to the grocery store with a mask on or having friends over, will be less safe.

“The increased transmissibility of this variant requires an even more rigorous combined application of vaccination and mitigation efforts,” researchers wrote in the new report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health officials expect the current COVID-19 vaccines will be effective against the new variant.

President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team announced on Thursday its intent to allocate funds to start a more robust genomics surveillance program.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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