U.K. strain likely spreading in hard-hit California, officials warn

Registered nurse receives second coronavirus vaccine from nurse in Grass Valley, California. | Elias Funez / The Union via AP

OAKLAND – More than two dozen new cases of the strain of coronavirus, which emerged in the UK, have now been identified in San Diego County as health officials warn that the potentially more contagious variant is already likely elsewhere in the state.

The county’s health department reported Tuesday that 24 new cases were confirmed through genome sequencing of samples taken December 27-31. It is expected that four additional positive tests directly related to these confirmed cases will show the same strain known as B.1.1.7. This is by far the highest number of cases discovered in California to date.

The mutant variant was confirmed by Governor Gavin Newsom to have appeared in San Diego County last week, shortly after its presence in the United States was first documented in Colorado. The strain’s potential for wider spread could result in more deaths, even if the variant is not more fatal even to a patient who becomes infected with it.

The new strain has become a major cause of concern in a state that has seen record increases since November. In Southern California and the Central Valley, hospitals are full, forcing health officials to ration care for patients in Los Angeles. As in many states, California has been slow to adopt vaccines – to the point that Newsom admitted Monday that it was “not good enough.”

None of the 24 confirmed patients in San Diego County who are between 10 and over 70 years old are believed to have a recent travel history, indicating an increase in the spread of the tribe in the community. Officials say none of the infected people died and one woman is recovering at home after being hospitalized.

Emerging variants of the coronavirus, including another strain recently discovered in South Africa, are believed to be more contagious than the virus that has already ravaged California. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Tuesday, four cases were identified in San Diego County and two in San Bernardino County, despite health officials in other regions acknowledging that genome sequencing of samples is ongoing and sample sizes have so far been small.

“We imagine one should only expect others to be identified,” Newsom said Monday after announcing new cases in San Diego and San Bernardino.

In Los Angeles County, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told regulators on Tuesday that the British variant has likely already infected people there and that it is only a matter of time before their presence is confirmed.

Los Angeles health authorities have sequenced only 80 samples so far, none of which contained the genetic markers of the British or South African variants. However, Ferrer cautioned that the sequencing process will take several days and the sheer number of cases in the county creates little chance of avoiding the new strains.

“Given the number of people who test positive here in LA County, we’re assuming the variant is likely here. As we continue to run tests and the CDC tests some of our samples, we will likely find them.”

Los Angeles County was already devastated by a surge in the original coronavirus strain over the Christmas season. In the past few days there have been new cases ranging from 13,000 to 15,000 per day and hundreds of people who had succumbed to the virus.

On Tuesday the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health made the grim announcement that the total number of deaths had reached 11,000.

The current surge in cases in the region – a 905 percent increase since Nov. 1, according to Ferrer – is tied to Thanksgiving and does not include an even more deadly wave expected after hundreds of thousands of residents have traveled for Christmas and New Years.

The overburdened hospitals in the district and the emergency services agency have already had to make decisions about who should be cared for in the event of a lack of beds. The rescue workers have been instructed not to transport patients whose heart has stopped and who cannot be restarted on site.

Hospitals in the Los Angeles area have also suffered from a lack of oxygen, prompting EMS to do so circulate a memo Monday that only patients with oxygen saturation levels below 90 percent should receive additional care.

Grant Colfax, director of public health for San Francisco, said Tuesday that the new strain has not yet been discovered in that county. “We would not be surprised if and when it is discovered in San Francisco or in the region,” he said at a press conference.

Colfax said a number of laboratories, including the University of California at San Francisco, are running genomic tests to identify the new strain. “Unfortunately there isn’t much capacity for this, so only a very small number of samples are sent to laboratories for this subtyping,” he said.

Health officials in the Fresno district also said the British variant had not yet been identified in the area but that the likelihood of it being found in the near future was significant.

Victoria Colliver contributed to this story.

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