Delaware has confirmed its first three cases of the coronavirus variant from the United Kingdom that appears to spread more rapidly, the Division of Public Health announced Friday afternoon.
Delaware became the 27th state to publicly confirm the variant's presence.
All three cases are from the same New Castle County household: two adults and one child, all with mild symptoms.
'The cases were identified through routine surveillance of test specimens performed by the Division of Public Health Laboratory, health officials said.
The three had no known travel exposure, but may have been exposed while attending a family gathering with people from states where the variant had already been identified, officials said.
"It was reported that people at the gathering did not consistently wear face coverings or socially distance from one another for long periods of time," the Division of Public Health said in a press release. "Case investigation and contact tracing to identify, inform and monitor anyone who was in close contact with these individuals is ongoing."
The variant, known as SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7, was first identified in the U.K. in mid-December and appears to spread more easily than the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which spread rapidly throughout the U.S. in 2020.
The news shouldn't come as a surprise. With the level of community spread seen throughout the country in recent months, it was only a matter of time until the variant became more widespread. Other variants being monitored in the U.S. include mutations from Brazil and South Africa.
Full data is unclear on the U.K. variant, but studies suggest it is more contagious than other variants, perhaps by 50%. The death rate may be higher, too. Prime Minister Boris Johnson caused a stir last week when he said publicly that the variant could have up to a 30% higher mortality rate. But testing and studying are still underway to determine the full scope. And overall, most people infected with the disease recover, especially those under the age of 65.
“While we understand that people may be concerned, it’s important to know that while preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than SARS-CoV-2, it is not clear if it may cause more severe illness than the more common coronavirus," DPH Director Dr. Karyl Rattay said in a press release.
“Our approach and treatments are not any different, but as this new variant is more contagious, it is even more important that we remain vigilant and continue taking the necessary steps to avoid spreading the virus – wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid gatherings.”
Delaware has in recent weeks seen a downward trend in the rate of positive cases and hospitalizations. Through 6 p.m. Thursday, 320 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 complications, the lowest amount since Dec. 6. Further, the seven-day average of daily coronavirus cases is down to 533.9 cases per day over the last week, the lowest since the beginning of December.
The spread of the more transmissible U.K. variant has health officials concerned about the speed at which they're able to vaccinate. Delaware on Thursday announced changes to its approach to second doses, following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say people waiting for second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine can wait as long as six weeks between vaccinations.
As of midday Friday, 92,552 people had been vaccinated with at least one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. There were an additional 28,298 doses on hand.
The state and partners are resuming vaccinations for phase 1A health care workers, giving priority to emergency personnel, school nurses and health care workers who provide patient care and are at the highest risk of sustained close contact with infected people.
Doses were being delivered to county paramedic units on Friday, and a vaccination event limited to emergency responders is being planned for Monday with appointments made through first responder agencies, DPH said.
As has been true since the vaccine rollout began, the number of people waiting to be vaccinated far outnumbers the number of vaccine doses on hand and the pace of delivery from the federal government to states. As of earlier this week, more than 100,000 people were on a waiting list. The combined number of eligible people in phase 1A and 1B is 270,000.
Preliminary studies showed the Pfizer vaccine's first dose was 52% effective. Moderna's, meanwhile, showed 80% effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 disease.
The presence of the virus mutations in the U.S. and the level of community spread nationwide – even as case counts trend downward – is likely to lead to an increase in positive cases, though to what extent is unclear.
Preliminary studies suggest the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work against the U.K. variant and other variants.
Johnson & Johnson said Friday that its single-dose vaccine appears to be about 66% effective overall, but 85% effective against severe disease, data that could potentially be a game-changer to vaccine rollout in the U.S.