First Reported US Case of Virus Variant Triggers Questions

December 30, 2020 Updated: December 30, 2020

DENVER—The first case in the United States of a seemingly more contagious variant of the coronavirus that has raised alarm in Britain—in a Colorado man who hadn’t been traveling—has triggered a host of questions about how it got here and adding urgency to the nation’s vaccination drive.

The patient, who is in his 20s, is recovering in isolation in Elbert County, a mostly rural expanse on the edge of the Denver metropolitan area, officials said Dec. 29. His condition wasn’t disclosed.

The new, mutated version was first identified in the UK, where infections are soaring and the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has surpassed the first peak seen in the spring. The variant also has been found in several other countries.

“There is a lot we don’t know about this new COVID-19 variant, but scientists in the United Kingdom are warning the world that it is significantly more contagious,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said. “The health and safety of Coloradans is our top priority, and we will closely monitor this case, as well as all COVID-19 indicators, very closely.”

A waitperson tends to a patron
An employee tends to a patron sitting in the outdoor patio of a sushi restaurant in downtown Denver, on Dec. 28, 2020. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

The discovery of the mutated version overseas led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue rules on Christmas Day that require travelers arriving from Britain to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

The variant is probably still rare in the United States, but the lack of travel history in the first case means it’s spreading, perhaps seeded by visitors from Britain last month or this month, said scientist Trevor Bedford, who studies the spread of COVID-19 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

“Now, I’m worried there will be another spring wave due to the variant,” Bedford said. “It’s a race with the vaccine, but now the virus has just gotten a little bit faster.”

New versions of the virus have been seen almost since it was first detected in China a year ago. While it’s common for viruses to undergo minor changes as they reproduce and move through a population, the fear is that mutations will become significant enough to defeat the vaccines.

Colorado Politics reported a second suspected case in the state. Both patients were working in the Elbert County community of Simla. Authorities said neither is a county resident.

Public health officials are investigating other potential cases of the variant, which was confirmed by the Colorado State Laboratory, and are conducting contact tracing to determine its spread.

Scientists in Britain have found no evidence that it’s more lethal or causes a more severe illness; they believe the vaccines now being dispensed will be effective against it.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reported the weekend before Christmas that the variant was moving rapidly through London and southeast England. The region was placed under strict lockdown measures, and dozens of countries banned flights from Britain. France also briefly barred trucks from Britain before allowing them back in, provided the drivers got tested for the virus.

Japan announced a ban on Dec. 28 on all nonresident foreigners as a precaution.

South Africa also has discovered a highly contagious COVID-19 variant that’s driving the country’s latest spike of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

By Patty Nieberg