A person with no recent travel history outside of Dane County has been found to have the worrisome COVID-19 variant first found in England late last year, becoming Wisconsin’s sixth confirmed case, health officials said Thursday.
Researchers believe the variant, known as the B117 strain, spreads more easily than the original strain and may be more deadly. State and federal health officials have cautioned that widespread circulation of the strain could reverse recent declines in new cases and hospitalizations, and impede vaccination efforts — though current vaccines are still believed to be effective.
“We’ve been expecting to find B117 in Dane County,” Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, said in a statement. “While this is the first time sequencing has confirmed the strain here, we’ve been operating under the assumption that the variant is present, and that is why we continue to stress that people not let their guard down.”
Heinrich said the identification of the case in Dane County underscores the importance of wearing face masks, limiting contact with people outside of immediate households and maintaining 6 feet of distance from others.
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“Today’s news is a stark reminder that while progress is being made, risks remain with Covid-19,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said in a statement. “Fortunately, we all get some say in how much this variant impacts our community. If we continue to wear masks and avoid group settings, we will afford the necessary time for vaccine production and administration to help us stay ahead and contain spread.”
The state’s first case of the B117 strain was identified last month in Eau Claire County, and the second case was confirmed last week in Waukesha County, with health officials saying more cases almost certainly would be found. Eau Claire County has had two additional cases, and one has been confirmed in Milwaukee County, Elizabeth Goodsitt, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health Services, said Thursday.
Forty-two states have reported a total of 1,277 cases of the B117 variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten states have reported 19 cases of another concerning variant first found in South Africa, and two states have reported three cases of one first identified in Brazil.
Wisconsin and most states do the whole genome sequencing required to identify the variants on less than 1% of samples, so it’s likely more cases of the B117 strain are here, according to Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer with the state health department. The same measures that prevent spread of all COVID-19 work against the variants and could help prevent the emergence of more of them, he said.
“We’re detecting the tip of the iceberg,” Westergaard said last week. “The only way we can stop (the variants) is to stop the virus from spreading altogether.”
About 5% of samples in Dane County are sequenced, as the UW–Madison’s AIDS Vaccine Research Laboratory is one of four labs in the state doing the testing, along with the state Laboratory of Hygiene also located on campus. Westergaard said more resources are being sought to ramp up sequencing statewide.