Colorado health officials say the man who tested positive for a COVID-19 variant that has raised alarms because it is thought to be a more contagious version of the disease is a Colorado National Guard soldier.
The man appears to be the first confirmed U.S. case of the variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom. He has not traveled internationally, however, suggesting the variant was already circulating in Colorado.
The guard member, who is in his 20s, was deployed at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Simla, where the Colorado National Guard is responding to an ongoing outbreak. Simla is about 50 miles northeast of Colorado Springs.
A second guard member who was deployed to the nursing home has tested positive for COVID-19 is being investigated as potentially having the variant, too, state health officials say. That person also has not traveled internationally recently.
The guard members were tested on Dec. 24.
The Colorado National Guard arrived at the facility on Dec. 23. A total of six guard members were deployed to the facility, four of whom have not tested positive for coronavirus.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s epidemiologist, said during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday that it’s not clear if the soldiers caught the variant, known as B.1.1.7, at the nursing home or before arriving at the facility. That is being investigated, though health officials preliminarily feel the latter is more likely.
The outbreak at the Good Samaritan Society began in mid December and all 26 residents have tested positive for the virus, Herlihy said. Preliminary examination of those test results indicate residents and staff at the facility have not contracted the variant.
“But testing is ongoing,” Herlihy cautioned.
Herlihy said an investigation is also underway as to where the infected Colorado National Guard members were and who they interacted with before arriving at the nursing home.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says it should be able to confirm whether the second soldier is infected with the COVID-19 variant within a week. A dozen other samples from people who have contracted coronavirus are in line to be analyzed for the variant, too.
Dr. Emily Travanty, scientific director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said it can take up to six days to complete genetic sequencing that can identify whether someone who has contracted coronavirus has the B.1.1.7 variant.
“We are currently sequencing a subset of all the samples that come through the state lab,” she said.
Gov. Jared Polis says it’s not clear how prevalent the variant is in Colorado.
“This is unlikely to be the first person with the variant in the United States,” Polis said of the man with a confirmed case of the coronavirus variant. “There likely are many, particularly in the northeastern United States.”
Polis said Colorado’s state lab just happened to be the first to identify a case of the variant.
The man with the confirmed case of the variant is in isolation. His symptoms are mild, health officials say.
The B.1.1.7 is thought to be as much as much as 70% more transmissible, though it doesn’t appear to cause more severe symptoms in those who contract it. Health officials believe the coronavirus vaccines that are being administered in the U.S. and across the globe are effective against the variant, though more investigation is underway to be sure.
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.
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.
Viruses often mutate as they spread. Variants become most problematic, however, when they reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the state will be keeping a close eye on cases to determine whether the variant is spreading rapidly in Colorado. Additional measures may need to be taken if it is very prevalent.
“If the variant becomes the dominant form of COVID in the state, and indeed is more transmissible, we’ll see a steeper uptick in cases as time goes by,” France said. “We’ll need to react more quickly to help control it. Right now, we’re in this good place where cases have been stable and down. If we can stay in that space, then we will be fine. The issue, of course, will be if we start seeing cases come up.”