State health officials on Sunday announced the first case of a more transmissible COVID-19 variant involving a Boston woman who developed symptoms after returning from the United Kingdom earlier this month.
The woman, who is in her 20s, had traveled to the United Kingdom and became ill the day after she returned to Massachusetts, the department said. She tested negative for COVID-19 before she left the UK.
British health officials warned of the danger posed by the coronavirus variant in December. The US Centers for Disease Control, as of Sunday, reported 88 cases in 14 states.
Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said officials had anticipated that the variant would be identified in Massachusetts eventually, given its spread in other states and countries.
It’s key, he said, that health officials monitor the spread of the variance.
“More likely than not, there is more than one person [who] is infected out there,” Hamer said, “and we need to be doing more systematic sampling and sequencing, both to monitor the evolution and spread of this variant, but also to keep looking for new variants.”
“It’s going to continue to change, and we need to keep an eye on it,” Hamer said in a phone interview.
There is no evidence that the UK variant, called B.1.1.7, causes more severe illness or increased risk of death, according to the CDC’s website. The variant was first detected in September in the United Kingdom and is highly prevalent in London and southeast England.
But the CDC warned that an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations and potentially more deaths.
On Sunday, the state health department said it had been notified the previous evening of the woman’s test results.
“The individual was interviewed by contact tracers at the time the initial positive result was received, and close contacts were identified,” the statement said. “She is being re-interviewed by public health officials now that the variant has been identified as the cause of illness.”
A genetic sample of the coronavirus was sent to an out-of-state laboratory as part of a CDC surveillance process to identify disease variants, the statement said. Surveillance consists of genomic sequencing on portions of COVID-19 positive specimens.
Hamer said different COVID-19 variants also have been identified in South Africa and Brazil. Health officials in those countries and in the UK are concerned that those variants are more readily transmissible.
The UK variant was identified in Massachusetts just as it appears the state is beginning to get control over COVID-19 levels following a post-holiday surge, Hamer said.
It appears that the Pfizer vaccine works against the UK variant, he said.
On Monday the state is expected to offer vaccines in prisons and congregate care facilities, aiming to provide shots to about 94,000 eligible people, officials have said.
Hamer said officials must optimize efforts to get vaccines distributed as quickly as possible before the new variant spreads too widely.
“The real implication is that people are going to have to be really cautious [and continue] the current measures, current restrictions on indoor dining and gatherings... all that is going to be maintained until we know we’re safely out of the woods,” Hamer said.
The state health department noted that public health measures remain the same with the presence of the COVID-19 variant in Massachusetts: People must wear masks or face covering, maintain social distancing, and remain home if sick.
Anyone who has symptoms or is identified as a close contact of a person who contracts the variant should get tested, the department said.
The latest threat comes as the state on Sunday reported more than 4,200 new cases and 67 additional deaths due to the disease. The latest figures brought the total number of cases to more than 448,000, and the state’s death toll to 13,372.
The Department of Public Health also reported that more than 98,400 people were estimated to have active cases of the potentially deadly virus. There are 2,165 confirmed coronavirus patients hospitalized, officials said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.