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CORONAVIRUS

R.I. receives $1.5m in federal funding to track COVID-19 variants

The state has so far reported 197 cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in the UK, and 12 cases of the variant from Brazil.

A volunteer prepare a COVID-19 vaccine at Central Falls High School in Central Falls, R.I.
A volunteer prepare a COVID-19 vaccine at Central Falls High School in Central Falls, R.I.Gretchen Ertl/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — With coronavirus variants on the rise in Rhode Island, the state health department was awarded nearly $1.5 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand COVID-19 genomic sequencing and identify mutations in SARS-CoV-2.

The funding, which was included in the American Rescue Plan, is part of the Biden administration’s $1.7 billion investment for the CDC and state and local public health departments to monitor, track, and defeat emerging threats, including COVID-19 variants or other viruses in the future. The White House’s COVID-19 Response Team called the investment “critical” in the fight against the pandemic and potentially dangerous variants.

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“By increasing public health departments’ capacity for genomic sequencing, existing and emerging variants could be detected faster — before they grow prevalent,” read the Tweet. “This can allow public health officials to implement mitigation measures more quickly to prevent and stop the spread.”

The news comes as nearly half of Americans have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot. In Rhode Island, where adults over the age of 16 just became eligible for a shot on Monday, about 52 percent of eligible residents have been at least partially vaccinated and 36 percent have been fully vaccinated.

“While existing vaccines have proven largely effective against mutations so far, the potential emergence of new variants remains a big question mark hanging over the long-term recovery from the pandemic,” said US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in a statement Wednesday.

At this time, Rhode Island sequences only a portion of positive COVID-19 cases every week to screen for SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern and variants of interest. As of Monday afternoon, the state reported 197 cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in the UK. This is an increase from 72 cases of the variant reported in the beginning of April. At the time, only one case of the so-called P.1 variant, which was first identified among travelers from Brazil, was reported in Rhode Island. As of Monday, the state reported 12 cases.

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However, the state health department projects that more than 50 percent of all new coronavirus cases in the state are caused by variants of concern.

Since variants of concern first emerged, many public health officials have tried to ramp up genetic sequencing of test samples, but there’s been a lack of funding on a nationwide scale. But the sequencing is important because as the coronavirus moves through people, it mutates, and can be more infectious and more deadly. The $1,481,992 Rhode Island received will be allocated to help support the collection of COVID-19 specimens, sequencing of COVID viruses, and data sharing; a necessary public health measure, according to experts.

This initial tranche of funding will be distributed to the state in early May, according to a Meaghan McCabe, a spokeswoman for Whitehouse. And additional funding for genomic sequencing will be invested over the next several years.

“The more reliable scientific data we have the better we can understand, track, and stop the spread of variants of concern,” said Senator Jack Reed Wednesday in the announcement.

On Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the chief of the CDC said in a Tweet that the US was in a “complicated stage” of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases, deaths, and hospitalizations have increased in the past week while vaccinations continue to ramp up.

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As she encouraged Americans to continue to get vaccinated as soon as a dose was available to them, she said this $1.7 billion investment “fortifies the CDC’s ability to help stop this virus and its variants and situates experts and partners to better respond to future public health needs.”

“Rhode Island is in a race against time with vaccines and variants,” said Governor Dan McKee in a statement. “As we continue to get shots in arms, investing in data collection is an asset that will help protect Rhode Islanders and our neighbors across the country.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.