DHS: Variant strain of COVID identified in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis.  — A new, more contagious form of the COVID-19 virus has been detected in Wisconsin, health officials said Wednesday.

State epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard told reporters during a video conference that state health officials received confirmation Tuesday that the variant had been detected through routine genome sequencing of a positive COVID-19 test in Eau Claire County.

Westergaard said he had no information about the person other than he or she had traveled internationally in the two weeks before he or she was tested. The Eau Claire City-County Health Department is working to trace the person's contacts, he said.

The person is currently infected but it's unclear when he or she was tested, Westergaard said. Audrey Boerner, a spokeswoman for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said she had no information on the person.

The variant was first discovered in England in November and December. It's since turned up in Colorado, California, Florida, Minnesota, New York and Georgia.

Health officials have said the variant is more easily transmissible — Westergaard said researchers believe it's nearly twice as contagious as the original COVID-19 virus — but it isn't any deadlier and vaccines should be effective against it.

Westergaard said researchers aren't sure why the variant is more contagious. It may attach more tightly to cell receptors in the body or it may take fewer variant particles to cause infection than the original COVID-19 virus, he said.

Only about 1% of positive tests in the state are routinely sequenced, which means the variant could be more widespread than anyone realizes, Westergaard said. He cautioned people to continue to wear masks, stay socially distanced and avoid gatherings.

“It could be spreading in a more generalized way,” he said. “Is more of it out there? We don't have enough data to estimate how prevalent it is, but it's probably more than we know about.”

The number of COVID-19 infections in the state continued to drop for the fifth straight day. State health officials reported 2,134 newly confirmed cases and 37 more deaths on Wednesday. The state has now seen 513,270 infections and 5,248 deaths since the pandemic began in March.

About 28,000 cases were active as of Wednesday. The mortality rate remained at 1%.

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