A worrisome variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus has been found in a patient tested in Eau Claire County, the state Department of Health Services said Wednesday.
The new strain, first found circulating widely in England in November, is believed to be 40% to 70% more contagious than the original strain but is not thought to be more deadly. State health officials, who said Tuesday they had not yet found evidence of the new strain, said Wednesday it was identified on Tuesday.
The patient tested in Eau Claire County traveled internationally in the two weeks before testing positive for COVID-19, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer with the state health department. Less than 1% of samples tested in Wisconsin undergo the follow-up whole genome sequencing necessary to identify the new strain, known as B117, he said. It’s likely other cases in the state have the same strain but are undetected.
The new strain poses no greater risk to individuals, but it could exacerbate the outbreak at a time when COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state remain high — reinforcing the need for people to wear masks, avoid gatherings, keep distance from others and frequently wash their hands, Westergaard said.
“It certainly would not be surprising if there’s a lot more (cases here) than we realize,” Westergaard said. “We have to do what we’ve been training ourselves to do ... with greater intensity and fidelity ... The stakes are a bit higher.”
Meanwhile, state Assembly leaders on Wednesday criticized Gov. Tony Evers’ COVID-19 vaccination dissemination as “woefully inadequate.”
Minnesota on Saturday reported its first cases of the B117 strain, in five residents of the Twin Cities metro area. The variant has also been found in at least 67 additional cases in at least nine other states, including California, Florida, Indiana, New York and Texas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Wisconsin, Eau Claire County health officials are investigating the situation, contacting people who have been near the person recently, as they do for other COVID-19 cases, Westergaard said.
“We already know that COVID-19 is easily transmitted through respiratory droplets, and with this new variant appearing to be even more infectious, taking preventative measures like wearing a mask and physically distancing are even more important,” Secretary of Heath Services Andrea Palm said in a statement.
All viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19, change through mutation, and new variants of the coronavirus are expected to occur over time, the health department said. The B117 strain has raised alarm, however, because of how predominant it became in England, contributing to the country’s escalating outbreak.
“It quickly outcompeted and outpaced all the other variants in the area,” Westergaard said.
The available COVID-19 vaccines appear to be effective against the new strain, based on lab tests that show antibodies from the vaccine can neutralize the coronavirus, he said.
Scientists said it’s possible strains could emerge for which the vaccines aren’t as effective, but some of the vaccines could be upgraded in response and the protection they offer should be more than adequate even if it becomes somewhat reduced.
“We currently don’t have any reason to think that the known variants are not going to be covered by the current vaccine, but that doesn’t mean that into the future they won’t,” Westergaard said.
With people getting vaccinated and some COVID-19 patients receiving antibodies and other treatments, amid high levels of community transmission, “it creates a risk that selective pressure will cause novel variants to emerge,” Westergaard said.
Heat on Evers
State Assembly Leader Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, sent a letter to Evers saying there is “widespread confusion” on how doses of COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed.
“Health care workers, local public health officers, first responders, teachers and other critical frontline workers are unsure if and when they may receive a vaccine let alone distribute the vaccine to the public,” they wrote. “As we stand by and watch unelected bureaucrats within your administration debate the philosophical ramifications of providing a vaccine to one group of people before the next, Wisconsin is falling behind the nation and our citizens are suffering.”
The Assembly Committee on Health plans to hold a public hearing Thursday to discuss the state’s vaccine distribution.
Teachers, child care workers, people 70 and older, prisoners and others who live in congregate settings would get COVID-19 vaccine next in Wisconsin under a plan approved Tuesday by a state committee.
The plan, to be sent to the state health department following public comment and approval by a larger committee, came as the Trump administration said everyone 65 and older and adults with serious medical conditions should now qualify to get vaccine. Federal officials also said they would release more doses to states, prompting state officials to say they may accelerate their plan.
Health care workers and nursing home residents have had top priority for a limited supply of vaccine in Wisconsin and elsewhere since immunization against the coronavirus started nearly a month ago. As of Wednesday, 176,165 doses had been given, including at least 11,586 booster shots.
Police officers and non-paramedic firefighters in Wisconsin can start getting shots next week, state officials said Monday.