A more contagious strain of the coronavirus was detected for the first time in Alaska, health officials announced Tuesday.
The new strain, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, spreads faster and more easily between people, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin told reporters Tuesday.
“That means that people really need to double down on their efforts to mitigate transmission,” McLaughlin said. He said the COVID-19 vaccine still appears effective against the U.K. variant.
In December, an Anchorage resident became infected with a strain of the virus after the person was recently in a state where the virus variant had previously been detected, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The individual began showing symptoms of the virus Dec. 17, got tested on Dec. 20 and received positive results on Dec. 22.
After learning of the positive result, the person isolated, though someone they lived with also became sick. The two have both recovered and did not have contact with other people, health officials said in the statement.
“We are hopeful that transmission of this particular variant stopped with these two individuals, but we will very likely detect the variant strain again soon,” state chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink said in a prepared statement.
So far, 293 cases of the virus variant have been detected nationwide in 24 different states, including Washington state, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, only a small fraction of the cases across the country are sequenced in order to find the strain.
Alaska public health officials said it wasn’t unexpected to find the virus in Alaska. Earlier this month, federal officials from the CDC said the virus variant could become the dominant strain of coronavirus circulating in the United States by March.
The strain is not thought to make people any sicker, but an uptick in transmission of the virus could mean more people infected at once. That can stress health care systems and lead to more deaths, according to the CDC.
The state of Alaska has been sequencing COVID-19 cases since March, which is a way to look for the new variants. The state’s virology lab in Fairbanks found the U.K. variant strain, which was then confirmed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks lab, before the state’s health department ultimately notified the CDC of its finding on Monday.
Finding the new variants is a multi-day process. The state lab had been going through a backlog of specimens that indicated a possible variant when the U.K. strain was detected, Jayme Parker, chief of the Alaska Public Health labs, said in a call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. Sequencing is laborious and the state has been able to hone their techniques over time, a process that sped up in December.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re super far behind in sequencing because since then we have been able to sequence samples that are more recent, we just have not found variants in those specimens,” Parker said.
Alaska sequences around 4% to 5% of its cases, which is a larger portion of cases than the national average, and much closer to the percentage of viruses sequenced in the United Kingdom, where the new variant was first detected in September.
Health officials have continued to stress that in order to prevent further spread of COVID-19, including the new strains, practices like staying 6 feet or more from others, wearing a face covering, washing hands, avoiding gatherings, keeping social bubbles small and isolating upon experiencing symptoms are critical.