US reports 1st case of person-to-person spread of new virus

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China.

The Tennessee Department of Health on Thursday confirmed the diagnosis of the first cases of the highly contagious U.K. novel coronavirus variant, one of at least 21 states to report cases of the variant since it was first detected in the U.S. last month.

Health Department spokesman Bill Christian originally said five cases of the B.1.1.7 strain had been identified in the state but, in a later email, he corrected that number and said two were confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Thursday. A total of seven specimens have been sent to the CDC for confirmation. Christian did not say where the new strain had been detected, and a follow-up email was not immediately returned.

"Viruses constantly change and new variants are expected to occur over time," Christian said. "This does not change our response to COVID-19 in Tennessee, but serves as a reminder of the need for continued vigilance and practice of simple actions we can all take to prevent further spread of COVID-19: wash hands frequently, limit gatherings, maintain social distance, wear a mask in public and get vaccinated when you qualify to do so."

Dr. David Kirschke, medical director for the Northeast Regional Health Office, said it's likely there are more cases of the variant that haven't been identified, but said it's unlikely there will be rapid identification of those infected with it. Kirschke said the state has passive surveillance for variant testing, in which labs contact them when samples are atypical, and active, where the state sends a number of specimens to the CDC for genotyping weekly.

"Because variants are circulating that are more transmissible, it is more important than ever to follow public health guidance regarding mask use, hand washing, and physical distancing," Kirschke said.

 The new strain was first diagnosed in Britain last September, and was blamed for the country’s recent surge in infections that prompted yet another lockdown on Jan. 4. The U.S. saw its first confirmed case of the variant in Colorado on Dec. 29, with CDC models predicting it will become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

Though not inherently more deadly, the variant is about 50% more contagious than its predecessors and could fuel a new surge in infections that, in turn, would lead to more hospitalizations and more deaths.

“(G)iven that this new strain is even more contagious, it will of course infect even more people and as it spreads to infect more people, it will encounter people who are older, who have diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said in an interview Wednesday morning. “So, as a consequence, even though it’s not more likely to make an individual seriously ill, because it infects more individuals, there will be as a consequence more hospitalizations and probably more deaths.

“The anticipation is that it could well, in fact it’s likely, to strain our healthcare system,” Schaffner continued.

In Northeast Tennessee, Ballad Health officials said during a press conference on Tuesday that their emergency command center is focused on reducing hospitalizations before the variant gets a foothold in the region.

“We’ve got to keep the numbers going down because we don’t want to surge from 300, we don’t want to surge from 200, we really want to have hospitalizations below 100 before the variant gets here,” said Ballad’s Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift, adding that she’s “extremely concerned” about the variant.

“It’s concerning,” Swift said. “It’s what we’re all working on now.”

Swift and Schaffner also expressed concerns that, with cases in the state currently declining, adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing may drop and give the new strain the opening it needs to spread rapidly.

“That’s exactly the scenario we’re concerned about,” Schaffner said.

It also adds to the importance of vaccinating as many people as possible, though public health officials in the area were already feeling the pressure to vaccinate as many people as quickly as they can.

Kirschke said they’re already feeling “an urgency to get vaccine out as rapidly and efficiently as possible,” but that they are concerned about the variant.

“We are definitely concerned about the possibility of more transmissible COVID variants and their effect on our communities,” Dr. David Kirschke, medical director for the Northeast Regional Health Office said, “(but) we already feel an urgency to get vaccine out as rapidly and efficiently as possible, so I would not necessarily say the threat of the new variant affects that.”

In a statement Thursday evening, Ballad said the region is in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible before the variant gains a foothold in the community.

"The UK variant has not been determined to be deadlier than the original virus, but it does appear to spread more easily," the statement read. "Because this variant could impact our local population, Ballad Health urges anyone who is eligible to receive the vaccine to take it as soon as possible and as supply is available."

 

Previously reported:

Five cases of the more contagious U.K. novel coronavirus variant have been identified in Tennessee, one of more than 20 states to confirm cases of the variant since it was first detected in the U.S. last month. 

The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is a strain of the novel virus first identified in September and blamed for Britain's recent surge in cases that prompted its most recent lockdown on Jan. 4. Researchers estimate the variant is about 50% more transmissible, though there's no evidence the virus itself is more deadly. 

Bill Christian, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health, confirmed that at least five cases of the variant have been detected in the state and confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Viruses constantly change and new variants are expected to occur over time," Christian said. "This does not change our response to COVID-19 in Tennessee, but serves as a reminder of the need for continued vigilance and practice of simple actions we can all take to prevent further spread of COVID-19: wash hands frequently, limit gatherings, maintain social distance, wear a mask in public and get vaccinated when you qualify to do so."

Christian did not say where in the state the new variant had been found.

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