ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida continues to lead the nation in the number of documented COVID-19 variant cases tied to the U.K. with more than 400 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, according to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now with 416 documented cases, the Sunshine State has twice as many U.K. variant cases as California, which has 186 as of Wednesday, according to the CDC database. Colorado has 67 cases, Texas has 60 and Connecticut has 42 whereas most other states have only a few reported cases.
The number of mutant cases is expected to grow as more labs are brought on to sequence virus samples and track variants.
Florida has tripled the number of U.K. variants in under a month. Three weeks ago, Florida had reported 125 UK variant cases. Florida reported 37 new cases between Sunday and Wednesday.
Whereas mutant cases are on the rise in the Sunshine State, Florida is reporting a downward trend in overall COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to the virus, the latest Department of Health data shows.
Epidemiologist Alvina Chu with the Orange County, Florida Department of Health said Monday during a county briefing there have been 12 documented cases of the U.K. variant. Two new cases were found through random sampling.
“What we’re looking for is mutations which might potentially alter the infectivity or the virulence or severity of the illness that might be caused by these variants, which is why it’s crucially important that we continue, during this time, while we vaccinate people and build up immunity, that we continue to practice our pandemic precautions such as wearing masks, watching our distance and washing our hands,” Chu said.
The CDC updates its variant database three days a week at 7 p.m., however, the agency says it likely does not include all the data.
“The cases identified above are based on a sampling of SARS-CoV-2-positive specimens and do not represent the total number of B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1 lineage cases that may be circulating in the United States and may not match numbers reported by states, territories, tribes and local officials,” a disclaimer under the map reads.
The virus variants first detected in Brazil, P.1, and South Africa, B.1.351, have also been reported in the U.S. but in far fewer numbers. Just 16 cases of the Brazilian variant have been documented and so far, only three cases of the South African variant have been reported in the U.S.
The British variant is more contagious and is believed to be more deadly than the original, while the South Africa one may render the vaccines somewhat less effective. The ultimate fear is that a variant resistant to existing vaccines and treatments could eventually emerge.
There are many other variants besides the three receiving the most attention from the CDC, Chu said.
“Some of these mutations don’t mean very much at all and some of these mutations can give the virus an advantage to either spread more quickly or easily or either produce more severe illness,” Chu said, adding “That’s why until we get a good immunity, we need to practice our pandemic precautions, because every new infection allows the virus to mutate and gives it this opportunity to gain some advantage.”
However, the true dimensions of the problem in the U.S. are not clear because of the relatively low level of sequencing.
The mutant cases have likely been here all along and multiplying but the CDC began identifying and tracing the variants late last year. The CDC has been racing to catch up detecting the variants after falling behind.
Viruses mutate constantly. To stay ahead of the threat, scientists analyze samples, watching closely for mutations that might make the coronavirus more infectious or more deadly.
Less than 1% of positive specimens in the U.S. are being sequenced to determine whether they have worrisome mutations. Other countries do better — Britain sequences about 10% — meaning they can more quickly see threats coming at them. That gives them greater opportunity to slow or stop the problem, whether through more targeted contact tracing, possible adjustments to the vaccine or public warnings.
After the slow start, public health labs in at least 33 states are now doing genetic analysis to identify emerging coronavirus variants. Other states have formed partnerships with university or private labs to do the work. North Dakota, which began sequencing in early February, was the most recent to start that work, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories.
The CDC believes a minimum of 5,000 to 10,000 samples should be analyzed weekly in the U.S. to adequately monitor variants, said Gregory Armstrong, who oversees the agency’s advanced molecular detection work. And it’s only now that the nation is hitting that level, he acknowledged.
President Joe Biden, who inherited the setup from the Trump administration, is proposing a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that calls for boosting federal spending on sequencing of the virus, though the amount has not been detailed and other specifics have yet to be worked out.
“We’re 43rd in the world in genomic sequencing. Totally unacceptable,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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