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Coronavirus

Colorado man tests positive for more contagious variant of coronavirus found in U.K.

The man, who is in his 20s and is in Elbert County, has no travel history. His infection appears to be the first known case of the variant in the United States.

Diane Scanzaroli, a physician assistant at Ardas Family Medicine in Aurora, in the parking lot of the clinic on April 15, 2020, after testing a patient for the new coronavirus. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)
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A Colorado man has tested positive for a variant of COVID-19 that has raised alarms in the United Kingdom because it is thought to be a more contagious strain of the disease.

The man’s infection appears to be the first known case of the variant, which is said to be 70% more transmissible, in the United States.

The man, who is in his 20s and is in Elbert County, has no travel history, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said Tuesday. That indicates the man was infected by someone else in Colorado who has contracted the variant.

State health officials say they are doing a “thorough investigation” and that the man is recovering in isolation.

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“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,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a written statement. “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.”

CDPHE says its lab is the first in the U.S. to “quickly identify the variant,” known as B.1.1.7. Scientists in the U.K. believe the strain spreads more freely, but that it doesn’t cause more severe symptoms.

“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,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the CDPHE, said in a written statement. “We are currently using all the tools available to protect public health and mitigate the spread of this variant.”

There are currently no direct flights operating from Denver International Airport to the U.K., though Lufthansa and United Airlines have resumed flying passengers to and from Frankfurt, Germany.

Other airlines are operating flights from Denver to Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize.

The U.K. coronavirus variant has been detected in an increasing number of countries around the world, including Canada and Australia. The U.S. recently recently began requiring airline passengers from Britain to get a negative coronavirus test before flying.

Air travel to the U.S. from the U.K. is already down by 90% because of the pandemic.

A British Airways Boeing 747 lands at Denver International Airport before the pandemic. There are currently no flights operating between the Mile High City and the U.K., though there are flights from Denver to Frankfurt. (Provided by Denver International Airport)

Experts are working to confirm that coronavirus vaccines that are being administered in the U.S. will work against the COVID-19 variant. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said data coming from Britain indicates the vaccines still will block the virus. But the U.S. also will do tests to be sure.

Viruses often undergo small changes as they reproduce and move through a population. In fact, the slight modifications are how scientists track the spread of a virus from one place to another.

But if a virus mutates significantly enough, one worry is that current vaccines might no longer offer as much protection. And although that’s a possibility to watch for over time, experts say they don’t believe it will be the case with the coronavirus variant in the U.K.

“My expectation is, this will not be a problem,” said Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the U.S. government’s COVID-19 vaccine push.

The discovery of the variant in Colorado comes as the state is exiting a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations that prompted more restrictions on people’s movement. Indoor dining has been shut down in restaurants across much of the state and people have been asked to avoid all gatherings outside their own households.

With cases and hospitalizations decreasing, businesses have been hoping that the restrictions will be eased in a matter of weeks.

It’s not clear how the discovery of the variant in Colorado could change those plans. Polis is slated to hold a news conference on Wednesday to share details on the state’s response to the B.1.1.7 case.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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