The first cases of a COVID-19 variant that was first identified in the U.K. have been confirmed in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Health has confirmed that the B.1.1.7. variant of the virus was found in five residents of four different Twin Cities counties.
The results were confirmed Saturday, and the cases range in age from 15-37, with their illnesses ranging from Dec. 16-31.
While it's not believed to cause more serious illness, the U.K. variant is believed to be 50% more transmissible than the strains of COVID seen so far. If it takes hold before widespread vaccination can occur, it could put significant strain on U.S. health systems.
The U.K. has seen COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths skyrocket as the new variant started spreading about October, and has recently seen the country impose its strictest lockdown measures yet.
MDH has said for a while now that the U.K. strain was almost certainly in Minnesota already, but this is the first time it's been confirmed. Four of the cases were confirmed via the MDH Public Health Laboratory, and one was identified through the CDC.
In two of the cases, the patients had reported international travel. One had not traveled, and the other two had unknown travel histories.
MDH epidemiologists are re-interviewing patients to gather more information about how they were likely exposed and who the close contacts were.
"It’s important to note that this variant strain of the virus has been found in other states in the U.S., so we were expecting to find the virus in Minnesota. Knowing that it is now here does not change our current public health recommendations,” said State Epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield.
“While it is thought to be more easily spread from one person to another, it has not been found to cause more serious disease,” she added. “With RNA viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, it is not unexpected to see new, more successful strains emerge.”
“The fact that the variant strain is thought to be more contagious, but not more virulent, than the viral strains currently in wide circulation in Minnesota reinforces the importance of wearing a mask, social distancing outside your home and quarantining if you’ve been exposed to a positive case,” said MDH Director of Infectious Disease Kris Ehresmann.
“This virus makes it really hard for people to know whether they or the person next to them is infected – whether this strain or another strain – so we all need to do our part to protect ourselves and each other."
Vaccine maker Pfizer announced this week that early results suggest its vaccine is effective against the U.K. strain, as well as another strain that emerged in South Africa.
Lynfield said that efforts in limiting the spread of the variant will be primarily down to how well Minnesotans take steps to stay safe and keep others safe by wearing masks, keeping their distance, regular hand-washing, and limiting social gatherings.
"Getting as many people vaccinated as possible will also be critical in the control of spread of this variant and the emergence of other variants," she added.