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Cases of the B.1.1.7. coronavirus variant continue to rise in Colorado – but aren’t cause for concern, yet

The state has not found any cases so far from the South African or Brazilian variants of the virus

David Storey processes samples for COVID-19 test at Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Laboratory Services Division in Denver, Colorado on March 14, 2020. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
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The new coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom has firmly taken root in Colorado, with the state reporting 41 cases so far.

But one of Colorado’s top health officials said Wednesday that there is not yet cause for alarm in the spread of the variant, as overall COVID-19 cases in the state continue to decline and cases from the variant make up a small fraction of the total. As long as Coloradans continue to maintain a high degree of mask-wearing and social distancing, mathematical models do not show the variant leading to a dramatic resurgence of cases.

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The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

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“We actually see very little impact from the variant” if transmission control remains high, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist.

The U.K. variant — known scientifically as the B.1.1.7. variant — has been linked through modeling studies to faster rates of spread and, potentially, higher rates of deaths.

Reports of all new coronavirus cases in Colorado are falling — though Herlihy said the rate of decline has slowed in recent days. The number of patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19 has dropped to levels not seen since October. The number of deaths has also declined, though around 15 people with COVID-19 are still dying per day.

Because Colorado’s metrics are moving in the right direction, Herlihy said the B.1.1.7. variant may not prove to be as explosive as it was in the United Kingdom, where it emerged while the country was seeing a surge in cases.

“We don’t necessarily expect the experience here to be the same as it was in the U.K.,” she said.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

More reassuring news is that current vaccines appear to provide strong protection against the B.1.1.7. variant, and there also haven’t been reports that the variant can sneak past the body’s immune system to cause reinfection in people previously infected with a more common variant of the coronavirus.

But those two things aren’t necessarily true for two more worrisome variants that have emerged around the globe. Scientists are concerned that variants first identified in South Africa and in Brazil are capable of evading vaccines and causing reinfections.

Herlihy said Colorado has not identified any cases from either of those variants in the state so far — though they have been found in a handful of other states. Colorado has found 16 cases of the L452R variant, which has been connected to outbreaks in California. But there is not enough information yet to understand whether that variant spreads faster or causes worse illness.

Variants can’t be identified simply from a standard coronavirus test. In order to confirm the presence of a variant, the state or other labs must genetically sequence the virus found in test samples, a cumbersome, time-consuming process. Earlier this month, Herlihy said the state’s public health lab was sequencing 200 to 300 specimens a week, with a goal of eventually being able to sequence 5% of all positive specimens per week. (There were about 8,900 new cases reported last week.)

“(We’re) continuing to try to improve the work we’re doing,” Herlihy said, “but at this point feeling pretty good about the capacity we have in the state and the fact that we don’t see a clear increasing trend.”


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