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COVID-19 variant found in North Dakota for the first time; 2 cases confirmed, a third suspected

COVID-19 variant found in North Dakota for the first time; 2 cases confirmed, a third suspected

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State Division of Disease Control Director Kirby Kruger talks during a coronavirus briefing at the state Capitol in Bismarck last October. To the right is sign language interpreter Lindsey Solberg Herbel.

The variant strain of the coronavirus first detected in the United Kingdom last fall has been confirmed in two people in North Dakota and is suspected in a third, the Health Department announced Wednesday.

It's the first finding in the state of one of the COVID-19 variants that are emerging around the world.

The state laboratory confirmed the results Tuesday. One person had recently returned from domestic travel before becoming ill and the other was a close contact of the first. Both are now considered recovered. Both had been interviewed by contact tracers at the time of their initial positive tests, and close contacts were identified. 

One other North Dakota case is suspected to be the U.K. variant and is being investigated. That person is a close contact of the first two, according to Kirby Kruger, disease control director for the Health Department.

The agency is not releasing further information on the three people including ages, genders, hometowns and specific relationships, though Kruger said the initial two people "were close to each other." The department also is not saying to what state the one person had traveled. Kruger said the state is one in which the variant had already been confirmed, but it's not certain that the trip was the reason the person became infected.

The U.K. variant was first detected in the U.K. in September 2020 and has been found in numerous countries around the world, including the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 1,277 cases in 42 states, including Minnesota. For more information, go to https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant.html.

"This thing has emerged pretty rapidly in the United States, this particular variant," Kruger said, adding that it's no surprise it has finally surfaced in North Dakota.

"I suspect this is not the first -- it's just the first time we've been able to identify it in North Dakota," he said.

The variant was determined through genomic sequencing. That process essentially entails taking a positive COVID-19 sample and doing further genetic research, according to Kruger. Lab officials look for certain things in a sample that indicates they should be investigated further, he said. It wasn't immediately clear what percentage of samples get that level of research.

North Dakota Chief Laboratory Officer Christie Massen last week said the state lab has been testing since last May to identify any variants and has been screening more aggressively for them since December. She also suggested it was only a matter of time before one was identified in the state.

The U.K. variant is quickly spreading in the European Union, according to The Associated Press. 

Germany's health minister said the variant now accounts for more than a fifth of all positive tests in his country, rising from 6% to more than 22% in just two weeks.

In Slovakia, which now has the highest rate of virus deaths per population in the world, authorities found the U.K. variant in 74% of its positive samples.

Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said the U.K. variant represented 45% of its analyzed cases in the second week of February and predicted it will represent 80% of Danish infections by early March.

Scientists say the U.K. variant spreads more easily and is likely more deadly, but so far existing vaccines appear to be effective against it.

 “This variant strain is thought to be more contagious, which reinforces the importance of continuing to wear a mask, physical distancing, staying home when you’re sick, getting tested and quarantining when you’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive,” Kruger said. “Getting the vaccine when it’s your turn is another great way to prevent the spread of the variant strain.”

Other variants have emerged in South Africa and Brazil. Cases of those are less common in the U.S. -- though the Brazil variant has been found in Minnesota.

"I think it's something we have to keep an eye on and continue to conduct surveillance for," Kruger said, adding that more research needs to be done on the effectiveness of existing vaccines on those two variants.

"I think we have a lot to learn on some of these things yet, all three strains," he said.

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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