With COVID-19 infections on the rise in Colorado following the Christmas holiday, public health officials are ramping up efforts to track the new, more contagious variant of the virus that first was confirmed to be in the state last week.
An estimated 1 in 105 Coloradans currently are contagious with the novel coronavirus, health officials said Friday — a sign that while new cases and hospitalizations have fallen from fall peaks, transmission of the respiratory disease COVID-19 remains high across the state.
“There are some early signs that we are seeing a small increase so far following Christmas,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, during a new briefing. “It is still soon for us to see any potential impact of New Year’s Eve.”
Though it’s only been confirmed in three Coloradans so far, public health experts also are concerned that if the new variant — called B.1.1.7 — becomes the dominant strain in the state, it could spark a new surge in cases as it has in the United Kingdom.
In such a scenario, more people could become hospitalized and die, not because the new variant causes more severe symptoms or is more deadly, but due to it being more contagious than previous strains of the virus — so much so that each contact is about 50% more infectious.
But before they can combat the new variant, state officials first have to find it. They face challenges in doing so because the United States lacks much of the infrastructure needed to identify genetic variations of the virus, according to medical and public health experts.
“The U.S. is way behind where it should be (on sequencing),” said Dr. Jeremy Luban, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“Anywhere you are having transmission… if this virus appears or something similar, it is likely it will take over,” he added.
Colorado’s state lab was the first to identify the presence of B.1.1.7 in the U.S., and is starting to expand its collection of samples from across the state so that it can test more widely for new variants of coronavirus.
So far, the state does not believe the new variant is widespread in Colorado, Herlihy said.
“We are rapidly expanding our surveillance in the state for, not just the B.1.1.7 variant, but all variants,” Herlihy said. “So our lab is now receiving specimens from a network of hospitals across the state.”
The specimens sent to the state lab will come both from patients who are hospitalized and people who have been tested in clinics. Doing this will allow the state lab to see a wide sample of specimens and identify areas of Colorado where the variant might be, Herlihy said.
Two more people in Colorado were confirmed this week to have cases of the new variant, bringing the state’s total to at least three.
Two of the cases are Colorado National Guard members assigned to assist with an outbreak at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Simla on the Eastern Plains, and the third is a staffer at the Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons in Aurora. State officials are investigating a potential fourth case in another staffer at the Aurora facility.
The COVID-19 vaccines being distributed in the state are believed to protect against the new variant. But the efforts to get a majority of the state’s population protected from the disease are expected to take months, so people are encouraged by public health and medical experts to keep washing their hands, wearing masks, avoiding crowds and staying six feet apart from other people.
“The control measures are the same,” Luban said. “People shouldn’t be congregating.”
While he could not speak specifically to the pandemic in Colorado, Luban said that generally having restaurants open while transmission is still high is “a mistake.” Colorado eased restrictions in more than 30 counties Monday, and among the biggest changes it allowed was letting restaurants reopen indoor dining.
“You do not want to have people who are not together normally every day in the same living situation coming together in a space that is enclosed,” he said. “That is the most sure way to spread the virus.”
Colorado’s health department recorded 2,863 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and a 7-day test positivity rate of 7.99%. That is above the recommended threshold of 5%.
There were 833 people hospitalized statewide Friday with confirmed COVID-19, which is still around what the state saw during the April surge. Herlihy said there are signs hospitalizations, which have declined, are plateauing.
Earlier in the week, Colorado surpassed 5,000 COVID-related deaths. Most of those fatalities are directly due to the novel coronavirus, according to the state health department.
Every test sample for the novel coronavirus that is sent to the state lab is screened for signatures of the variant, according to a spokesperson from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“It’s difficult to test specifically for this variant,” said Dr. Thomas Friedrich, professor of virology at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine, adding, “Other variants of the virus can cause the same signature.”
The state lab processes between 23,000 and 26,000 test samples a week, including from the state Department of Corrections and some long-term care facilities. The state also has partnerships with private labs to analyze samples from community testing sites, according to a spokesperson with the health department.
Through testing, the new variant is identified when a sample tests positive for the coronavirus but in which a signal for the “S gene” is not detected. Lab workers then sequence the viral genome, according to the health department.
The Department of Public Health and Environment has asked labs to send weekly batches of all positive tests so that it can determine whether they are cases of the new variant. It has also asked commercial labs that can detect the absent signal for the “S gene” to send samples to them for sequencing, a spokesperson said earlier this week.
“We’ve been in communication with health providers regarding how to test for the B.1.1.7 variant, when possible,” said an agency spokesperson in an email, adding, “We are hoping to sequence 60-100 samples weekly in addition to the targeted sequencing from the samples we typically receive and analyze.”
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