“State health officials are closely monitoring the B. 1.351 variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the state,” Hogan said in a statement. “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 variant doesn’t appear to cause more severe illness or increase the likelihood of death, but health experts say it’s more transmissible and that vaccines may be less effective against it. After appearing in more than two dozen countries, the first U.S. cases were reported in South Carolina on Jan. 28.
Confirmation of the variant in a second state is certain to raise alarms among health officials, who warned this week that the spread of the South African version and others could threaten progress against the pandemic. The variants are also all but certain to be more widespread than reported. The United States conducts little of the genetic sequencing needed to identify new variants, allowing them to spread undetected.
Hogan said the case in Maryland involved an adult living in the Baltimore region. The person didn’t have a recent history of international travel, “making community transmission likely,” read a statement from the governor’s office. “Comprehensive contact tracing efforts are underway to ensure that potential contacts are quickly identified, quarantined, and tested.”
Variant threat is growing, experts say
The report from Maryland came as health experts and Biden administration officials said the United States will need to move faster and with greater diligence to stay ahead of the rapidly proliferating virus variants.
“Time is lives,” Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Saturday. “The quicker we drive down cases, ramp up vaccination, and treat people, the more lives we can save.”
The uptick in reports of variant cases indicates “weakness in our virus surveillance system,” according to Andrew Stanley Pekosz, a virologist and professor at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. As regular covid-19 testing in the U.S. does not differentiate between variants, the mutations can only be identified in specialized laboratories, Pekosz said, allowing the variants’ spread to continue undetected.
“My guess is that these viruses probably came here several weeks ago at least,” Pekosz told The Washington Post, noting the lack of international travel history among patients.
More than 430 cases of the three variants have been identified in at least 31 states, according to federal data. The most prevalent appears to be the B.1.1.7 variant, which spiked in the United Kingdom late last year and prompted a new wave of pandemic restrictions. Experts say it could be 50 percent more transmissible than the more common coronavirus strain, and will likely account for a majority of cases in the United States in the coming months.
To help control the spread, the Biden administration on Friday issued a sweeping order requiring masks on the nation’s public transportation systems. People are ordered to wear masks “while boarding, disembarking, and traveling on any conveyance into or within the United States,” as well as “at any transportation hub that provides transportation within the United States,” the order from the Centers for Disease Control said. The list of covered spaces includes trains and subway stations, bus terminals and airports, and planes.
The Biden administration also continued to step up its messaging on public hygiene, stressing the efficacy of masks and social distancing in a string of public statements this week, and urging people to get vaccinated.
Nationwide, at least 23.2 million people have received the vaccine, according to tracking by The Post. About 5 million people have been fully vaccinated, or 1.5 percent of the U.S. population.
West Virginia notches victory in pandemic fight
While mass immunization efforts have been slow to pick up in some states, West Virginia this week became the first state in the country to complete coronavirus vaccinations at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, the governor said Friday, notching an important victory in the fight against the pandemic.
Gov. Jim Justice (R) said state health officials had offered second vaccination doses at all of the state’s 214 long-term care facilities, inoculating many of the people most vulnerable to fatal infections.
So far, 17,763 residents and 19,836 staff members have chosen to be vaccinated, according to state data. Justice didn’t say how many had declined the vaccine, but he told reporters Friday that the percentage who took it was “overwhelming.”
“It’s great work,” said Justice. “A lot of people are really pulling the rope here.”
The West Virginia vaccinations offer a glimmer of hope as other states struggle to ramp up injections and the emergence of variants increase the urgency for getting shots into arms.
The coronavirus has exacted a merciless toll on nursing home residents and staff. Across the United States, more than 150,000 residents have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, making up more than a third of the country’s total deaths, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project. More than 1 million cases have been reported and more than 31,000 facilities have experienced outbreaks. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population lives in such facilities.
In West Virginia, outbreaks have fallen by half since the beginning of January, Justice said, with 55 active outbreaks in nursing homes and 18 active outbreaks in assisted-living facilities.
Another lawmaker tests positive
As Congress debates the latest pandemic relief package, another lawmaker on Friday tested positive for the virus.
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) received a positive test result after a staff member in his Boston office tested positive earlier in the week, a spokeswoman, Molly Rose Tarpey, told The Post in a statement.
Lynch had received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and subsequently received a negative test prior to attending President Biden’s Inauguration on Jan 20., Tarpey said. Vaccines typically take a few weeks to become fully effective and are better at preventing symptoms than infection itself.
“While Mr. Lynch remains asymptomatic and feels fine,” Tarpey said, “he will self-quarantine and will vote by proxy in Congress during the coming week.”
Feud over vaccine simmers in Europe
On Saturday, the European Union is expected to issue a new rule that any coronavirus vaccine produced in its territory must seek approval before export. It’s seen as a move against AstraZeneca, after the company said that it had to cut down its initial E.U. deliveries due to production delays while continuing to supply Britain with doses.
The development initially raised alarm after the EU signaled it would need to restrict exports with Northern Ireland, which would violate Brexit agreements. By Saturday, EU officials backtracked after further consultations.
As the United Kingdom moves ahead with vaccinations, it’s still simultaneously battling major outbreaks led by a highly transmissible variant first detected in England in November. U.K. health officials reported Saturday that another 1,200 people had died in the past day from complications related to covid-19. The United Kingdom has recorded over 1,000 covid-19 deaths every day since the start of January.
While the World Health Organization has been criticized for its slow response to the pandemic, one part of its messaging has been consistent and clear: The danger of “vaccine nationalism” — that is, countries who can prioritize vaccines for themselves at the expense of less-wealthy nations.
On Saturday, the Guardian reported that WHO asked the British government to delay its inoculation program after vaccinating the country’s most vulnerable in order to free up doses for priority groups in other countries.
“We’re asking all countries in those circumstances to do that,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said. “Hang on, wait for those other groups.”