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David Storey is processing the samples for COVID-19 test at Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in Denver on March 14, 2020. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Colorado health officials announced Sunday night that they have discovered the first three cases in the state of the worrisome South African coronavirus variant.


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

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The cases were found in samples taken from an outbreak at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex in Chaffee County. The samples came from two staff members and one inmate. They were chosen at random for the genetic sequencing required to confirm variant coronavirus cases. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will now sequence all positive samples from the facility to look for additional variant cases.

Colorado has already seen cases involving the faster-spreading United Kingdom variant, as well as cases from a California variant of the virus that may also be able to spread more quickly. But the South African variant — known scientifically as the B.1.351 variant — is particularly concerning because it has shown the ability to at least somewhat evade the existing coronavirus vaccines. It has also been linked to cases of reinfection among people who had already recovered from a previous bout with COVID-19.

The Buena Vista complex is experiencing its third coronavirus outbreak of the pandemic. Three inmates and 11 staff members have tested positive for the virus so far in the current outbreak, according to CDPHE’s most recent outbreak report, which was released on Wednesday.

In the two previous outbreaks, 511 inmates and 76 staff members tested positive. One inmate died.

In response to the variant cases being detected, CDPHE announced that it will require all people exposed to the cases to quarantine for 14 days.

CDPHE is also planning a vaccination clinic on Monday for staff and inmates at the facility. The agency will hold another vaccine clinic for family members and close contacts of staff members later in the week.

Correctional facilities have been among the biggest sources of outbreaks in the state. Because incarcerated individuals are unable to socially distance or otherwise protect themselves from the virus, state health leaders had originally planned to prioritize them for vaccination. Using vaccine to squelch outbreaks can protect the general public by preventing those outbreaks from seeding cases outside prison walls.

But Gov. Jared Polis nixed the plan, saying inmates should receive no priority over people of the same age and health status in the general public.

The South African variant has been found in at least 19 other states and the District of Columbia.

Modeling estimates suggest that one in four Coloradans have been infected by the coronavirus. Nearly 6,000 Coloradans have died due to the disease.

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at...