A man receives a COVID-19 nasal swab test at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) amid a coronavirus wave in Southern California on December 22, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images
Three US states have now identified cases of the new coronavirus strain in people with no travel history, a sign that the variant could already unwittingly spread to Americans.
Florida health officials announced Thursday that they had found the first case of Covid-19 in the state with the new, more contagious variant of the virus. The man, who lives in the county north of West Palm Beach, is in his twenties and has no travel history, the Florida Department of Health said in a Twitter post.
The Florida man was among the first to be diagnosed with the new variant B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the UK. California has now identified at least four cases of the new strain in San Diego County in men with no reported travel history. The cases came just days after Colorado health officials discovered the first cases in people who had not traveled.
“I’m not surprised you have one case and probably more cases in California,” said White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday after announcing that state health officials had found her first case. “We’ll likely see reports from other states.”
U.S. health officials have said the variant’s arrival in the nation comes as no surprise, although if allowed to spread uncontrollably, it could make matters worse. While the evidence suggests that the new strain is easier and faster to transmit compared to previous versions of the virus, it is not believed to cause more serious diseases in infected people and current vaccines should continue to work against it, according to the Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a conference call Wednesday.
Nevertheless, the new variant threatens to worsen the situation if more people are hospitalized due to its spread, according to experts. December was the deadliest month of the pandemic in the US as hospitals reached capacity and the much-anticipated vaccine rollout ended slower than expected.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the nation reported more than 6.3 million new infections and more than 77,500 deaths in December. On the way into 2021, just over 125,000 people are currently being hospitalized with Covid-19 – more than twice as high as in mid-April last year. This comes from data from the COVID Tracking Project, which is carried out by journalists at The Atlantic.
Another cause for concern: The first cases of the new variant were found in the country’s most populous states during a busy vacation travel season, Mercedes Carnethon, vice chairman of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, told MSNBC on Friday.
TSA officials said they screened 1.28 million passengers at US airports on the Sunday after Christmas. This is the highest number since Covid stopped traveling in mid-March.
“We can be sure that from the photos we all saw at TSA checkpoints during the vacation, we have traveled millions of people between these destinations,” Carnethon said. “We can be pretty sure that this variant is everywhere now.”
The latest findings from Imperial College London also show that the new variant appears to affect people under the age of 20 more than older adults. Part of that shift, however, could be because schools stayed open during a period of lockdown orders, the study says.
The age difference could be an issue as younger people are more likely to be key workers in the community than the first to be vaccinated, Carnethon said.
“I think the priority, I think, needs to be to reinforce the basic messages we know about how to stop community transmission,” Carnethon said. “As we know, our vaccination strategy begins with strengthening our infrastructure for healthcare workers. However, this is not necessarily the population that is causing the coronavirus to spread to the community.”