Coronavirus: More Cases Of New UK Virus Strain Discovered In California

Just as California was beginning to see some hopeful signs of an alarming COVID-19 surge ebbing in some regions, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that more cases of a highly contagious strain of the virus from the United Kingdom have been discovered in Southern California, a sign that it likely has been stealthily circulating across the state.

After the first case in California was discovered in San Diego last week, the total known has grown to six statewide — four in San Diego and two in San Bernardino– and one person infected with the mutated strain has been hospitalized, according to Newsom.

And with California sequencing between 5,000 and 10,000 virus samples each week, the governor said he anticipates there will be more new cases of the variant to report, possibly as soon as late Monday.

“We imagine, in fact one should just anticipate, that there will be others identified,” Newsom said, adding that he expected state officials to provide an update by late Tuesday on the testing underway to understand more comprehensively “what this strain looks like and what it’s been doing.”

The new strain is believed to be more contagious than the earlier variants but not to cause more severe symptoms or health conditions. In Britain, the new strain spread so fast it became the dominant form of the virus there in just three months, prompting new lockdown orders in the face of a dangerous surge and an overwhelmed health care system.

Despite ongoing genomic testing at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in partnership with UC San Francisco, the new variant has not yet been found in the Bay Area or anywhere outside of Southern California. But it’s unlikely to go undiscovered elsewhere here for long, Newsom said.

“We do very comprehensive genomics testing here in California,” he added.

If officials learn the new strain has substantially spread, the state will need to reconsider its plan of attack against the virus, such as administering one dose of the vaccine instead of two for now to slow transmission, said George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco.

Otherwise, rapid spread of the new strain will further overwhelm already strained health care facilities and result in even more deaths, he said.

British officials last week announced they would prioritize partly vaccinating as many people as possible with the first shot over following up with second shots three or four weeks later. The second shot adds a measure of effectiveness and likely makes vaccination-derived immunity more durable.

“There might be something to be said about pursuing this strategy,” Rutherford said. “Because it is more rapidly transmitted, we want to stop it as fast as possible and double down on the number of people vaccinated.”

New cases tied to the British strain come as California’s average daily COVID-19 case count has plateaued below a pre-Christmas peak, although the daily death toll and rate of tests coming back positive continue to swell.

On average over the past week, California has reported approximately 35,760 new cases per day, almost 15% fewer than two weeks ago. However, during that same time frame, the seven-day rate of positive test results has risen slightly by two-tenths of a point to 13.5%.

The past seven days in California have been the pandemic’s deadliest, and some public health experts believe the worst is yet to come as new cases and hospitalizations tied to ill-advised holiday gatherings are tallied.

“This week is critical in terms of better understanding where we are and if we’re going to hit that surge on top of a surge on top of yet another surge,” Newsom said.

Some of the effects are already being seen.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said ambulances have waited up to seven hours several times in the last week to bring patients into a hospital emergency room.

“It’s a symptom of what’s happening in the emergency departments,” Williams said, referring to a surge in COVID-19 patients that has left hospitals scrambling for beds and health care workers to staff them.

When asked why ambulances are not taking people elsewhere, even outside the county, rather than waiting so long, Williams pointed out hospitals across the entire region are facing similar challenges.

Public health experts such as Rutherford hope the state’s vaccine rollout, particularly to patients in skilled nursing facilities, will start to reduce the influx of infected people who require hospital stays.

As of Monday, California has received about 1.29 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, but only about 454,000 have been distributed. It is unclear whether the sluggish inoculation campaign is due to health care workers and patients in skilled nursing facilities turning down a vaccine or to other planning impediments.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Monday that state officials are working with county health departments and health care systems to develop a more detailed blueprint to address inefficiencies and expedite the distribution of vaccines.

Under the state’s proposed vaccination plan that is expected to be publicly released on Wednesday, next up in the state’s vaccine campaign will be Californians 75 years and older as well as some essential workers in three categories — education and childcare, emergency services and high-priority essential businesses such as farming and grocery stores.

Following them will come Californians 65 years and older, incarcerated individuals, the homeless and workers in transportation and logistics, the industrial, residential and commercial sector, and critical manufacturing.Newsom on Monday unveiled his proposal for the next tier, which would include people 50 years and older, those 16 to 64 years old with underlying medical conditions and additional sectors of essential workers. The state’s Drafting Guidelines Workgroup has yet to approve the specifics of this proposal.


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