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Coronavirus variant first found in South Africa has now arrived in Maryland

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) receives the Moderna vaccine at the State House on Jan. 18 in Annapolis. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The new variant of the coronavirus first found in South Africa has emerged in a Maryland resident, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Saturday, confirming the arrival of a highly transmissible mutation as the region struggles to meet demand for the vaccine.

The case of the new variant, which was identified by state health officials in consultation with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, involves an adult in the Baltimore area who has not traveled outside of the country, “making community transmission likely,” the governor’s statement read. Officials are working to quickly identify the man’s potential contacts and ensure they are quarantined and tested, Hogan said.

“State health officials are closely monitoring the B.1.351 variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the state,” Hogan said. “We strongly encourage Marylanders to practice extra caution to limit the additional risk of transmission associated with this variant. Please continue to practice standard public health and safety measures, including mask wearing, regular hand washing, and physical distancing.”

The B.1.351 variant, originally discovered in South Africa and later in two dozen countries, was first identified in the United States on Thursday, in two cases in South Carolina. Maryland is the second state to report a confirmed case of the variant.

The mutation appears to spread more easily than other variants, but there is no evidence that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness.

Coronavirus mutations add urgency to vaccination effort as experts warn of long battle ahead

The Baltimore-area man who contracted the new variant did not require hospitalization and is recovering at home in self-isolation, Maryland Health Department spokesman Charles Gischlar told The Post. He added the variant was discovered on Friday by “public health officials who routinely sequence specimens to identify variants.”

Scott Gottlieb, former director of the Food and Drug Administration, has suggested that this variant might be more resistant to antibody therapies. While additional research is still required, vaccines will likely still be effective against the mutation, top infectious-diseases expert Anthony S. Fauci said in January. The diagnostic coronavirus tests currently available are expected to be able to detect the B.1.351 variant, Hogan’s statement said.

This is the second mutation of the novel coronavirus to be identified in Maryland. The Maryland Department of Health announced that it identified the mutation first found in the United Kingdom on Jan. 12. Health officials in the state have since identified seven cases of that variant, known as B.1.1.7.

More than 430 cases of the three variants, including the one initially found in Brazil, have been identified in at least 31 states, according to federal data, an alarming spread that Fauci described as a “wake-up call.”

“It is an incentive to do what we’ve been saying all along: to vaccinate as many people as we can, as quickly as we possibly can,” Fauci said Friday.

The arrival of the South Africa variant comes as Maryland has struggled to robustly roll out the vaccine, and daily new coronavirus cases remain high even as they continue to decline from a mid-January peak.

The state health department has confirmed 352,726 cases of the novel coronavirus in Maryland as of Saturday and a statewide positivity rate of 5.79 percent.

Maryland has administered more than 512,000 initial doses of the vaccine, but its vaccination rate ranks in the bottom quartile of all states and territories tracked by the CDC. The CDC data shows Maryland has only administered about half of the vaccine doses it has been distributed, compared to neighboring West Virginia, which has administered 86 percent of its allotted doses in one of the country’s most successful rollouts.

The CDC data, however, does not offer a complete picture of current conditions because its data lags behind data from states.

Beginning Feb. 1, severely immunocompromised people, such as those receiving chemotherapy, will be eligible for the vaccine. Maryland is now providing vaccines for seniors 65 and older, as well as teachers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, day-care providers and other essential workers.

Known coronavirus deaths and cases in the Washington region

Hogan announced earlier this week that the state plans to roll out six mass vaccination centers staffed by the National Guard. Mass vaccination sites at Six Flags America in Prince George’s County and the Baltimore Convention Center will be set up by Feb. 5, and other sites will be added later. The state will also deploy pharmacists for vaccinations at certain Safeway and Rite Aid stores.

The governor also launched a campaign Friday to convince people who are hesitant about getting the coronavirus vaccine to take the shot, just as the Maryland congressional delegation urged Hogan and the health department to address disparities in vaccine distribution through a comprehensive outreach and education strategy.

The lawmakers earlier this week had criticized Maryland’s low ranking compared to other states and signs of racial disparities in vaccine distribution. Hogan said Friday that the state’s new “GoVax” awareness campaign would particularly focus on boosting confidence in the vaccine in minority communities.

Hogan also announced Friday that Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead will lead the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force, which is aimed at ensuring vaccine doses are administered equitably.

Restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus continue in jurisdictions throughout the Washington region. In Maryland, restaurants and bars are only allowed to serve seated guests in groups of six or fewer and are barred from serving customers indoors after 10 p.m. But Hogan had planned to lift the 10 p.m. restriction on Feb. 1 citing declining cases, while still capping capacity in restaurants and other businesses at 50 percent.

Hogan has also called on Maryland’s public schools to reopen, at least part time, no later than March 1, despite opposition from teachers unions and some local school officials.

It was unclear Saturday if the discovery of the new variant would change any the governor’s plans.

Across D.C., Maryland and Virginia, more than 14,000 people have died of the coronavirus and more than 891,000 cases have been reported.

Erin Cox contributed to this report.

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