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Health Officials Confirm New, More Contagious COVID-19 Variant In Colorado

Rae Ellen Bichell
Staff at the CDPHE state lab test patient samples for COVID-19 in March 2020.

Updated at 12:58 p.m. Wednesday

State health officials say a Colorado National Guard member has the country’s first confirmed case of the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7. that some scientists say is more contagious. This is the same variant discovered in the United Kingdom. According to a news release, the Colorado State Laboratory confirmed and notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the finding.

The individual is a male in his 20s who is currently in isolation in Elbert County, outside of Denver, and has no travel history. He is recovering and will remain in isolation until he has been cleared by public health officials.

The man was deployed last week to a nursing home in a small town southeast of Denver. A second national guard soldier working at the same facility has also been identified as possibly having the variant. State epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said in a news conference Wednesday that investigators are still trying to figure out where it came from.

"We have an extensive investigation underway to identify all contacts the cases may have had in the two weeks leading up to their deployment, as well as any contacts outside of the facility they may have had outside of their deployment," she said.

Additional testing at the nursing home, so far, has shown the variant is not spreading to others at the facility. Health officials said the vaccines being given now are thought to be effective against this variant, and symptoms do not appear to be more severe.

“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. 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. We are working to prevent spread and contain the virus at all levels,” said Gov. Jared Polis in a statement Tuesday. “I want to thank our scientists and dedicated medical professionals for their swift work.”

The Colorado state lab was the first in the country to quickly identify the variant through sophisticated analysis of testing samples.

“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,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We are currently using all the tools available to protect public health and mitigate the spread of this variant.”

Scientists who have been researching the variant in the United Kingdom believe the B.1.1.7 variant to be more contagious than previous strains the SARS-CoV-2 variant, though the symptoms are no more severe. In addition, the currently approved vaccines are thought to be effective against this variant. 

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, which represents some 14,000 facilities across the country, issued a statement on Wednesday.

“This development comes at a time when long term care facilities are facing the worst outbreak since the spring,” the organization’s president and CEO, Mark Parkinson, said. “Soaring community spread has resulted in a record-breaking number of cases and deaths in nursing homes — nearly 25,000 cases and 4,000 deaths per week.”

COVID-19 vaccination clinics for long-term care facility residents and staffers began on Monday. They are expected to take 12 weeks to complete.