PROVIDENCE — State health officials on Tuesday announced the first cases of a more transmissible — and possibly deadlier — coronavirus variant from the United Kingdom have been identified in three Rhode Island patients.
The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is more easily spread than the original coronavirus. It has caused a rapid surge of cases in the United Kingdom and other countries, as well as in Florida and California.
The samples, which were identified Monday night, underwent sequencing as part of the Rhode Island Department of Health’s COVID-19 genomic surveillance plan.
These cases are still under investigation, according to the announcement.
Of the three patients, one was in their 60s, one in their 50s, and one in their 20s. Two patients are from Newport County and one is from Providence County, according to local officials. The Health Department is not releasing their names because these patients have not yet been notified, but have already cleared isolation, and therefore, did not test positive recently.
Rhode Island is among 40 states that have identified variants among residents.
“We knew the variant would come. This is not surprising,” said James McDonald, the medical director of Rhode Island’s health department, at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
McDonald said case investigations will begin soon, which will include contact tracing, but told reporters not to expect a lot of information about the patients.
The announcement comes nearly a month after Massachusetts public health officials identified that state’s first case of the UK variant. On Sunday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported an additional 19 new cases of the variant in the state, bringing the total number of infections caused by the coronavirus mutation to 29. Of the 29 total cases, four have evidence of recent travel, which suggests that the majority of cases identified in Massachusetts are community-acquired, according to health officials.
In Connecticut, a total of 42 cases of the UK variant had been identified as of last Friday.
British government scientists announced Saturday that they are increasingly finding the variant to be linked to a higher risk of hospitalization and death than previous versions of the coronavirus, according to The New York Times.
Public health officials in Rhode Island have previously said they were concerned about the new strains of the virus. During a weekly COVID-19 press conference on Feb. 4, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state’s health department, said if new strains of the virus are identified in the state, new restrictions on businesses could be rolled out.
Dr. Jinen Thakker is one of the medical directors at the Kent Field Hospital in Cranston, which is operated by Care New England Health System. He said the UK variant could become the dominant strain in Rhode Island by March because it is easier to transmit, and also increases one’s chance of being hospitalized by 50 to 60 percent.
“We cannot let our guard down,” said Thakker, who said he recommends following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear two masks at once.
Earlier this week, a new report by The New York Times showed Rhode Island with the lowest vaccination rate of all 50 states. When asked if Rhode Island’s health department hasn’t been fast enough in distributing shots, Thakker said he remains optimistic, particularly since two state-run mass vaccination clinics will begin administering doses Thursday.
“The faster we vaccinate, the best for the community,” he said.