A man receives a nasal swab COVID-19 test at Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) amid a coronavirus surge in Southern California on December 22, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images
Three states across the U.S. have now identified cases of the new coronavirus strain in people with no travel history, a sign that the variant could already be spreading unknowingly among Americans.
Florida health officials on Thursday announced that they found the state’s first case of Covid-19 with the new, more infectious virus variant. The man, who lives in the county just north of West Palm Beach, is in his 20s with no history of traveling, the Florida Department of Health said in a Twitter post.
The Florida man is among the first handful of people to be diagnosed with the new variant, known as B.1.1.7., first identified in the United Kingdom. California has now identified at least four cases of the new strain in San Diego county among men with no reported travel histories. The cases have come only days after Colorado health officials detected the first couple of cases in people who hadn’t traveled.
“I’m not surprised that you have a case, and likely more cases, in California,” White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday after he announced state health officials had found their first case. “We likely will be seeing reports from other states.”
U.S. health officials have said the variant’s arrival in the nation isn’t a surprise, though it could make matters worse if it’s allowed to spread unchecked. While evidence indicates the new strain transmits more easily and quickly compared with previous versions of the virus, it’s not thought to cause more severe disease in people who are infected and current vaccines should still work against it, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said on a conference call Wednesday.
Still, the new variant threatens to make matters worse if more people are hospitalized as a result of its spread, experts said. December was the deadliest month of the pandemic in the U.S. as hospitals reached capacity and the highly anticipated vaccine rollout ended up slower than anticipated.
The nation reported more than 6.3 million new infections and more than 77,500 deaths during December, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Heading into 2021, just over 125,000 people are currently hospitalized with Covid-19 — more than double the highs set in mid-April last year, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by journalists at The Atlantic.
Another cause for concern: The first cases of the new variant have been found in the country’s most populated states amid a busy holiday travel season, Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, told MSNBC on Friday.
TSA officials said they screened 1.28 million passengers at U.S. airports on Sunday following Christmas, the highest number since Covid halted travel in mid-March.
“We can be sure based on the photographs that we all saw from TSA check points over the holidays that millions of people traveled among these destinations,” Carnethon said. “We can be fairly confident this variant is now everywhere.”
Recent evidence from Imperial College London also shows that the new variant appears to affect people under the age of 20 years more than older adults. Part of that shift, however, could be because schools remained open during a period of lockdown orders, the study said.
The age difference could be a problem because younger people are more likely to be out in the community as essential workers, and they aren’t the first in line to be vaccinated, Carnethon said.
“I think the priority in my opinion, needs to be on reinforcing the basic messages that we know about how to stop the community transmission,” Carnethon said. “As we’re well aware, our strategy for vaccination is starting with shoring up our infrastructure of health care workers. However, this isn’t necessarily the population who is leading to the community spread of the coronavirus.”