The Illinois Department of Public Health is monitoring a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 after the first confirmed case in the United States was discovered in Colorado earlier this week.
The new variant, which was initially identified in the United Kingdom, has been discovered in Southern California and Florida, as well as Colorado. Those two cases are not known to be linked to travel, which could indicate community spread, according to the IDPH.
No cases of the new variant have been found in Illinois, but IDPH director Dr. Ngozi Ezike says they’re closely monitoring the situation.
“Viruses are constantly changing through mutation and variant virus are expected,” said Dr. Ezike in a statement. “At this time, we have no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease or death. However, early study shows the variant may spread more easily and quickly. We will continue to work with academic partners, laboratory researchers, physicians, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor for cases.”
The variant was first discovered in the United Kingdom in September and is thought to be faster-spreading than the initial strain of the virus.
“A lot of countries not so much in the United States, but many other countries have been sequencing all new infections trying to look for these changes in the virus over time,” said Dr. Aniruddha Hazra with the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Colorado reported its first confirmed case of the new variant on Tuesday and is now investigating a second possible case.
“Now to be clear that doesn’t mean that Colorado is the first state that has people with the variant,” said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. “In fact, it’s very likely it exists in many states, particularly states that have more interaction with the United Kingdom."
Officials in Colorado announced Wednesday that a member of the National Guard tested positive for the new variant—the first confirmed case in the country. The patient is a man in his twenties, was deployed to work at a nursing home and had no prior travel history.
Researchers in the UK warn this new variant is significantly more contagious and doctors in Chicago said it’s possible that the new variant has been spreading in Illinois—we just don’t know it yet.
“I think it’s possible certainly,” said Dr. Michelle Prickett with Northwestern Medicine. “We have not been testing specifically for it. Our tests are more looking for just the general version of the virus. The way you find these variants you have to do a full sequencing is my understanding.”
Dr. Hazra weighs in on the possible spread in Illinois.
“The fact that there’s a community case in Colorado with no sorta linkage to travel or what not most likely means its community spread here in the United States already. Whether not it’s truly in Illinois or not we can’t say for sure, but in the end I don’t think it really matters we should just be prepared and act as that variant is here," Hazra said.
Despite fears about the speed with which the virus will spread, both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines are believed to be effective against the new variant.
“Everything we’re hearing is that the vaccine should be susceptible to this new variant,” said Prickett.
In a statement, the IDPH said based on the information currently available about the new variant, the effectiveness of the vaccine has not changed.
And while there is more to be learned about the new variant, such as how widely it has spread and how it compares to others, the IDPH recommends people continue to wash their hands, wear a mask, social distance, and stay within their households to prevent the spread, no matter the strain.