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Suspected COVID-19 variant detected in Pitkin County residents

Two Pitkin County residents have preliminarily tested positive for a more contagious variant of COVID-19, Pitkin County sources said Wednesday afternoon.

A third person who works with the two residents in Pitkin County also preliminarily tested positive for one of the variants, though that person does not live in the county, Josh Vance, county epidemiologist, said Wednesday.

“A variant of concern is a COVID-19 variant that is not widely circulating in the United States at this time and may be more contagious than the current predominant variant,” according to a news release Wednesday from Pitkin County Public Health. “Pitkin County is working with these two individuals and any affected organizations to prevent additional transmission and conduct testing.



“The two individuals share a common exposure source and are believed to be connected.”

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment laboratory determined Tuesday that the residents’ test results submitted by the county’s public health department were suspected of being one of the variants, the release states. The lab is conducting additional testing to confirm the preliminary test results.



The particular type of variant – whether from the U.K., South Africa or a newly identified variant from California – has not yet been identified by the state lab, Vance said. The lab first screens specimens for what is known as an “S-gene dropout,” then goes back and sequences the specimens to find out exactly which one it is if that is present, said Vance and Kurt Dahl, county environmental health director.

That process should take five-to-seven days, so results should be available this weekend or early next week, Vance said. Currently, the state lab is finding that about 1% of specimens it tests are coming back positive for one of the variants. Most have been identified as the U.K. variant, though some have come back positive for the California variant, he said.

So far, the state health department has identified 16 variant cases in Colorado, 13 of the U.K. variant and three of the California variety, said Suzuho Shimasaki, Pitkin County deputy public health director.

Included in those results are two confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in Garfield County, Vance said.

The two Pitkin County residents with the suspected variant — a man in his 20s and a man in his 30s — work at the same location in Pitkin County. Dahl and Vance declined to release the name of the business or whether it is located in Aspen.

Vance said he did not know where the third person who works at the location and preliminarily tested positive for a variant lives, though contact-tracing efforts to track that person’s movements and contacts have begun to ensure the person doesn’t spread it elsewhere.

Pitkin County contact tracers are working with the local business where the three men work to conduct testing on all people who may have come into contact with the men, Vance said. That includes a group of about 50 people.

A majority of test results from those 50 people have come back, though some are still pending, Vance said. With the exception of the three in question, none of the test results has come back positive for the S-gene indicator, he said.

The two Pitkin County residents have not recently traveled out of the country or out of the state, though they have traveled out of the county within the Roaring Fork Valley, Vance said. Both were in isolation on Wednesday, he said.

The CDC has said it expects the U.K. and South Africa variants to become the dominant strains of COVID-19 in the United States by March, Dahl said.

“Because of the international travel here, we wondered if we’d see these variants sooner rather than later,” he said. “We’re trying to understand how prevalent they are in the community. There’s a lot more information we need to gather to determine how this impacts our community.”

The U.K. and South Africa variants are 30% to 70% more transmissible than the current dominant strain of the virus, Vance said. Little information exists about the California version — which was identified in January — though it also is suspected of being more contagious, he said.

“What we know about the U.K. variant is that it does appear to affect children at greater rates,” Vance said. “Kids do tend to display more symptoms.”

The cases of COVID-19 prompted by the U.K. variant, however, do not appear to be worse than those provoked by the current dominant strain, he said.

Pitkin County residents should continue to practice social distancing, wear face coverings in public and at work and seek testing immediately if any symptoms of the virus develop or if they’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, Vance said.

“We want to encourage individuals to be more vigilant than they were previously,” he said.

 


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