L.A. County reports 1st case of more contagious coronavirus variant as region surpasses 1M infections

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Los Angeles County confirmed its first case of the new, more contagious coronavirus strain first reported in the United Kingdom, health officials said Saturday.

Authorities also announced that the region has surpassed 1 million coronavirus cases.

A man who recently spent time in L.A. County was found to have the virus variant. He has since traveled to Oregon and is currently isolating there.

Although this is the first confirmed case of the U.K. variant in the county, public health officials believe that the strain is already spreading in the community. 

“The presence of the U.K. variant in Los Angeles County is troubling, as our healthcare system is already severely strained with more than 7,500 people currently hospitalized,” Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County public health director, said in a news release Saturday. “Our community is bearing the brunt of the winter surge, experiencing huge numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, five-times what we experienced over the summer.”

Ferrer said the more contagious variant makes it easier for infections to spread at worksites, at stores and at home. 

The U.K. variant has a mutation in the receptor binding domain of the spike protein, one that could potentially make it more rapidly transmissible than other circulating strains, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Two academic publications released earlier this month — one by the Imperial College London and a preliminary report by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory — both concluded that the new B.1.1.7 variant is more transmissible. 

This variant was first detected in September 2020 and is now highly prevalent in London and Southeast England. It has since been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the United States and Canada, health officials said.

The first U.S. case of the coronavirus variant was reported on Dec. 29, 2020 in Colorado. The variant was found in a man in his 20s who had no travel history.

The next day, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced California’s first known case of the virus variant, which was found in a 30-year-old San Diego man with no travel history. San Diego County health officials reported the next day that three more men had contracted the new strain, but none had any known interaction with the other and two of them hadn’t traveled.

Earlier this month, San Bernardino County health officials reported that two people from the same household had contracted the virus variant after one member had contact with a traveler who returned from the U.K. However, it’s unclear whether the traveler had also tested positive for the same strain.

The CDC warned on Friday that the new, more infectious variant will probably become the dominant version in the U.S. by March.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said there’s no indication the new strain is more harmful, and added that it appears the current COVID-19 vaccines should be effective in fighting it.

California is finding cases of the possibly more infectious strain while it deals with an unprecedented coronavirus surge that has already overwhelmed hospitals and some mortuaries.

L.A. County on Saturday reported an additional 14,669 cases and 253 new COVID-19-related deaths. The new figures now bring the county’s total to 1,003,923 known infections and 13,741 deaths since March 2020, according to the public health department. 

Health officials have been pleading with residents to stop gathering with non-household members as the state remains in the initial phase of its COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan.

Meanwhile, the county is struggling to vaccinate its 800,000 health workers and doesn’t anticipate being able to provide shot to its 1.3 million people 65 and older until February, health officials said Friday.

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