The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) today announced the new variant strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus first detected in the United Kingdom was identified by genomic sequencing in positive specimens from five residents of four different counties in the Twin Cities metro area. Four of the cases were identified through the MDH Public Health Laboratory, and one was identified through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The results were confirmed on Saturday, Jan. 9. The cases range in age from 15 to 37 years and their illness onsets range from Dec. 16 to Dec. 31. None have been hospitalized, to MDH’s knowledge. Two cases reported international travel, one did not travel, and the others have unknown travel history. MDH epidemiologists are re-interviewing the cases to gather more information about how they were likely exposed and who their close contacts were. That investigation is continuing.
“It’s important to note that this variant strain of the virus has been found in other states in the U.S., so we were expecting to find the virus in Minnesota. Knowing that it is now here does not change our current public health recommendations,” said State Epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield.
“While it is thought to be more easily spread from one person to another, it has not been found to cause more serious disease,” Lynfield said. “With RNA viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, it is not unexpected to see new, more successful strains emerge.”
“The fact that the variant strain is thought to be more contagious, but not more virulent, than the viral strains currently in wide circulation in Minnesota reinforces the importance of wearing a mask, social distancing outside your home and quarantining if you’ve been exposed to a positive case,” said MDH Director of Infectious Disease Kris Ehresmann.
“This virus makes it really hard for people to know whether they or the person next to them is infected – whether this strain or another strain – so we all need to do our part to protect ourselves and each other,” Ehresmann said.
The good news, Ehresmann said, is that preliminary studies have indicated the COVID-19 vaccines currently in use are effective against the variant strain.
Health officials said it is still too early to know what kind of impact this variant strain may have in the state, but MDH epidemiologists are looking into that.
“Whether this new strain infects more people will be determined to a large degree by how rigorously we all practice those protective measures that are so important,” Lynfield said. “Getting as many people vaccinated as possible will also be critical in the control of spread of this variant and the emergence of other variants.”
This variant strain of the virus was first detected in the United Kingdom in September 2020 and has been found in numerous countries around the world, including the United States. According to the CDC, 63 cases of this UK variant strain have been identified in 8 states as of Jan. 8.