A mutant, more transmissible strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in Summit County, officials said Monday, the third instance of the so-called “U.K. variant” identified in Utah.
It arrives at a time of optimism locally as the holiday-related COVID surges have largely subsided and the county’s cases are at their lowest point since the fall, fully 65% lower than a Jan. 9 high.
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said the variant was found in a COVID-19 sample from a Summit County woman younger than 30. No other information was made available about her case, including when she was diagnosed or the severity of her illness.
Bullough’s update to the Summit County Board of Health Monday focused on what he called “a whole lot of good news,” including several improving metrics about the state of the COVID-19 pandemic locally.
“I just can’t tell you how happy I am looking at these numbers compared to where we’ve been,” Bullough told the board.
He cautioned residents to continue to follow public health guidelines including avoiding crowds, wearing a mask and washing hands frequently, saying that the encouraging trends could easily reverse.
And the arrival of the variant could contribute to such a reversal, Bullough indicated, as the strain is more contagious than the traditional virus that causes COVID-19, dubbed SARS-CoV-2.
U.K. officials reported the existence of the new variant Dec. 14. In January, Utah officials announced the mutated virus had entered the state, found in a Salt Lake County man who was diagnosed in December. That man was also relatively young, aged 25-44, and experienced only mild symptoms of COVID-19.
The Moderna- and Pfizer-manufactured vaccines, the only ones approved in the U.S., are believed to be effective against the mutation, according to state health officials.
Despite initial reports from scientists in the U.K., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more study is needed to determine whether the variant is indeed deadlier than other forms of the virus.
The Utah Public Health Laboratory has been studying the makeup of the virus that is causing COVID-19, according to a statement from the county, with the goal of sequencing the genome of 10% of the samples from across the state.
As of Jan. 31, the CDC reported 467 cases of the novel variant in the U.S. and that it has spread to the majority of states and many other countries.
While the strain might not be more deadly, officials have indicated a more contagious virus could still be cause for alarm.
When cases increase, the virus eventually finds its way through household groups to more vulnerable people, officials have said, leading eventually to hospitalizations and deaths.
Summit County Epidemiologist Louise Saw told the board that the post-New Year’s Eve surge took longer to abate because the disease continued to infect roommates and family members days and weeks after their close contacts caught the virus.
She also said the latest surge skewed younger, indicating to her a possible “New Year’s Eve party crowd” had been infected.
Bullough said that the majority of new cases continue to emanate from small-group gatherings. While the holidays are largely behind us, some board members wondered whether Super Bowl parties would similarly spread the virus.
Because COVID-19 only entered the human population recently, the long-term effects of the disease remain unknown, even from the most mild-appearing cases.
Summit County Councilor and new Board of Health member Roger Armstrong warned the board not to downplay seemingly benign cases, indicating he continued to deal with symptoms from his bout with the virus.
An increase in case numbers, which the U.K. variant might propel, would also increase the likelihood that the virus evolves into more dangerous variants.
“For the virus to mutate, it has to replicate and to replicate it has to have a host,” said Deputy County Manager Janna Young in a public meeting last week, echoing recent statements from national health officials calling on Americans to seek a vaccine and continue to follow health guidelines to make it harder for the virus to spread.
Utah’s hospitals remain overcrowded, and Bullough told the board that Park City Hospital has been discharging some patients to home care when, in non-pandemic times, they would have remained hospitalized.
He has said hospitalization rates lag two weeks or more behind changes in new case rates, and indicated he hoped hospitalization rates would continue to decline.
On Sunday, the percentage of intensive care unit beds in use at the 16 Utah hospitals that have the most COVID patients was 82%. That matches the lowest total since early November and is below the 85% threshold at which officials say the level of care diminishes.