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'UK variant' of COVID-19 confirmed in Utah

Posted at 11:21 AM, Jan 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-15 19:33:52-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A much more infectious mutation of COVID-19 has been confirmed by state health officials to be in Utah.

The "UK variant" of COVID-19 was found in a Salt Lake County man between the ages of 25-44 who had not traveled outside the state of Utah recently, the Utah Public Health Laboratory said. The man experienced mild symptoms and the B117 variant was found in a genetic sequence of a COVID-19 test.

It was something the Utah Department of Health had been anticipating. The man involved is not believed to be the only one with it in the state.

"If we detected it this quickly since we were looking for it, it indicates to us it is more widespread than this one individual," said Dr. Kelly Oakeson, the director of the state public health lab.

RELATED: What makes the UK coronavirus strain more contagious?

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said what makes this particular strain different is it is much more contagious. The UK variant spreads the same as other forms of COVID-19 (through droplets and the air) but it is more infectious.

"What has changed,is how easy it is for the virus to cause you to be sick. So for every individual that is infected with this new variant, they’re able to spread it to more individuals," she said.

That has the potential to further overwhelm Utah's hospitals, which have been operating near capacity since Christmas when many disregarded health guidelines and gathered. But the good news is the vaccines available do work against the UK variant.

"Now more than ever, we really need to be practicing good public health by wearing a face mask, staying home when sick, avoiding large gatherings and physical distancing as much as we can," Dr. Dunn said.

The state is now in a race to try to vaccinate more people as the new UK variant spreads. Recently, FOX 13 reported the Utah Department of Health yanked vaccine doses from hospitals, who have spent the past month inoculating frontline health care workers, to give them to long-term care facilities with vulnerable adults. That leaves lower-tiered workers without a shot for now.

"This is a hard time to have a more contagious strain given that it’s winter, people are inside more, the holiday season just passed and people are quite frankly fatigued with all the public health recommendations that we’ve made," Dr. Dunn said. "That in combination with not enough vaccine to go around is concerning. But i will say that the vaccine gives us hope."

Governor Spencer Cox has ordered vaccination efforts to speed up in Utah. He has even volunteered the Utah National Guard to help local health departments.

The Utah Department of Health said it would not recommend further restrictions in the state. Gov. Cox has kept in place a statewide mask mandate and health orders limiting capacity in restaurants and businesses.

Reacting to reports that the federal government may not have a reserve of COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Cox's office told FOX 13 in a statement: "We continue to work with the outgoing and incoming administrations to gain more clarity on the amount and rhythm of vaccines coming to our state. We are hopeful that we will see an increased amount of vaccines soon."

RELATED: How is the COVID-19 variant different from the virus we already know?