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First reported U.S. case of COVID-19 variant is found in Colorado

A server wears a protective mask while tending to a patron sitting in the outdoor patio of a restaurant.
A server wears a mask while waiting on a customer Monday in the outdoor patio of a downtown Denver sushi restaurant.
(Associated Press)

The first reported U.S. case of COVID-19 caused by the coronavirus strain that’s sparked alarm in the United Kingdom has been detected in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday.

The variant strain was found in a man in his 20s who is in isolation southeast of Denver and has not traveled recently, state health officials said.

The Colorado State Laboratory confirmed that the man was sickened by the virus variant, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was notified.

Public health officials are investigating other potential cases and performing contact tracing to determine the spread of the variant throughout the state.

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Scientists in the U.K. believe the new virus variant, which has a distinctive set of 17 genetic alterations, is more contagious than previously identified strains of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

British scientists have found a version of the coronavirus with a cluster of genetic changes that make it more transmissible and perhaps more dangerous.

However, many other scientists have pushed back on that view, noting that there are other ways to explain its rapid spread in England.

Any version of a virus can become dominant if it happens to be the first to take hold and start spreading in an area, a situation known to geneticists as the “founder effect.” It’s also possible that super-spreader events through dense communities and among people who were less likely to wear masks and socially distance helped it gain a foothold.

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So far, there is no indication that the new strain makes people sicker, or that the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the United States will be less effective against it.

“There is a lot we don’t know about this new COVID-19 variant, but scientists in the United Kingdom are warning the world that it is significantly more contagious,” Polis said. “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.”

The World Health Organization urges more genomic sequencing to ensure new variants of the coronavirus are detected as pandemic enters its second year.

The Democratic governor and state health officials are expected to address Coloradans on Wednesday.

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Health officials in California are on the lookout for the variant as well.

The state is testing thousands of samples regularly to identify changes in the virus’ genome, but as of Tuesday, the U.K. version had not been detected, said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s public health director.

A memo issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on Christmas Eve asked labs to review recent data from positive coronavirus tests to see if any matched the genetic signature of the U.K. virus.

As of Monday, 29 samples had been examined, and none were matches, according to Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director.

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Gov. Newsom says he’s been discussing new protocols with airlines and others to keep a new, more contagious strain of coronavirus out of California.

Even so, Los Angeles County health officials aren’t letting their guard down.

Ferrer said there’s a high probability the variant is in the Los Angeles area, but it doesn’t appear to be dominant.

“Whether the variant is here or isn’t here, the steps we need to take are exactly the same,” she said.

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Colfax emphasized that there’s no evidence that existing coronavirus vaccines “will have any trouble working against this variant. The vaccine scientists are testing to confirm this.”

The discovery of the variant led the CDC to issue new rules on Christmas Day for travelers boarding flights to the U.S. from the U.K., requiring they show proof of a negative coronavirus test.

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.


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