Coronavirus in Colorado: What we know about the new COVID-19 variant strain

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This week, the Colorado state laboratory recorded the first known U.S. case of a new variant of COVID-19.

Since then, California state officials have confirmed another case of the variant

The variant strain of COVID-19 was first detected in the United Kingdom in September and is believed to be more contagious, but no more deadly, than the strain that has spread across the United States for months.

Here’s what we know so far about the new variant of the virus that’s now in the U.S.

Colorado’s first case of the COVID-19 variant

The Colorado state lab has discovered one confirmed and one suspected case of the COVID-19 variant, both in National Guard members. 

The confirmed case is in a man in his 20s deployed with the National Guard to assist with the coronavirus outbreak at the Good Samaritan Society Nursing Home in Simla, Colorado, which was first identified in mid-December. The suspected case is also associated with that deployment, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said during a Wednesday news conference.

Simla is a town of about 650 residents in Elbert County, located 49 miles northeast of Colorado Springs.

In the confirmed case, the person has mild symptoms and is recovering at home in Arapahoe County. The person suspected to have the variant of the virus is recovering in a hotel in Lincoln County, Helrihy said. 

Both National Guard members are the only two to test positive in this deployment, Herlihy said. The six-person unit was sent to the Silma nursing home Dec. 23, and the two members tested positive during routine testing Dec. 24.

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While most of the cases in the nursing home were detected before the National Guard arrived, Herlihy said the state lab is gathering and testing samples from the facility to help determine where the variant form of the virus is spreading in the state. 

“We do not have evidence that the variant virus is circulating in that facility, but testing is ongoing,” Herlihy said.

Herlihy said state health officials are still working to determine where the new variant strain originated. Neither person had traveled internationally before testing positive.

“That investigation is ongoing and we are exploring all possibilities,” Herlihy said.

What does this mean for Colorado?

The variant of the virus was first identified in the UK because the area was experiencing a rapid increase in new cases, Colorado Chief Medical Officer Eric France said during a Wednesday news conference. 

Data from UK researchers shows the variant form of COVID-19 spreads more quickly than other forms of the virus, France said. Instead of an infected person making one or two others sick, someone with the variant virus could pass it to four or five others, he said. 

“Of course, with more cases comes more hospitalizations,” France said, which is concerning for public health officials.

The new form of the virus is not more severe or deadly, France said. Data so far shows people with the variant virus have the same symptoms, and France said they expect the current COVID-19 vaccine to be just as effective on this form of the virus.

Right now, the state is in a good place where new case rates are declining, France said. But if the new variant becomes the dominant form of the virus in Colorado, the virus could begin spreading more quickly.

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If testing shows the variant form of the virus is becoming more prevalent in the state and cases begin spiking, “then we’ll have to act quicker and more broadly in our thinking,” France said.

“All the same precautions need to be taken,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said. “People should just be more diligent about taking those precautions as we find out how prevalent this strain is in Colorado.”

How Colorado scientists detected the variant 

The state lab has been tracking the variant in the virus since it was first detected in the UK, and it has developed a testing protocol for identifying the specific mutation of the virus in the usual nasal swab, or PCR, test for the virus, said Emily Travanty, scientific director for the state public health laboratory.

The state lab identified the variant after analyzing COVID-19 testing samples, initially finding a sign of the variant in a nasal swab test. Scientists then sequenced the viral genome and found eight mutations specific to the spike protein gene associated with this variant, according to the governor’s office.

Herlihy said as of Wednesday the state lab was preparing to do sequence testing on 24 other samples it suspects could be variant forms of the virus and 12 more samples waiting to be tested.

While COVID-19 testing turnaround has shortened to 1-2 days, the testing to determine if it’s the variant version of the virus takes about 3-5 days, Travanty said. 

Where else has the variant been identified?

After being found in the UK in September, the variant has also been identified in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Japan, Singapore, India, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, according to a USA TODAY report. 

On Tuesday, Colorado was the first state to identify the variant of the virus.

“This is unlikely to be the first person with the variant here in the United States,” just the first confirmed case, Polis said during a Wednesday news conference.

On Wednesday, California officials announced they had also identified the variant of the virus in the state, according to USA TODAY.

“We likely will be seeing reports from more states,” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious diseases specialist, said in a video conversation with California Gov. Gavin Newsom. “This is something that’s expected.”

USA TODAY reporter Grace Hauck contributed to this report. 

Sady Swanson covers public safety, K-12 education and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.