SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s first case of the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant was reported Friday in a Salt Lake County man between 25 and 44 years old who tested positive last month but had not traveled outside the state and experienced only mild symptoms.

“We fully anticipated we would find this strain in Utah,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said, advising that it’s more important now for Utahns to continue following the same public health guidelines intended to slow the spread of the deadly virus, such as wearing a mask.

“We know this strain is more transmissible than previous COVID-19 variants, and our hospitals continue to operate near or over capacity,” she said. “So now more than ever, Utah residents need to wear masks, practice physical distancing and avoid large gatherings.”

Dunn said the way the variant spreads hasn’t changed, but the mutation allows the virus to more easily enter the body and attach itself to cells, making people more susceptible to getting sick. However, she said the variant doesn’t seem to make people sicker or more likely to die, and is responsive to the existing vaccines.

Kelly Oakeson, a genomics researcher with the Utah public health laboratory, said he believes the variant is already more widespread, given that only about 10% of the positive samples in the state are being sequenced to determine whether the strain is present.

The news comes as the state reported 2,543 new coronavirus cases and 12 additional deaths. Another 12,985 Utahns have been tested for the deadly virus as of Friday and the rolling seven-day averages for positive tests is 2,391 per day and 25% for percent of positive laboratory tests.

There have now been 320,102 COVID-19 cases in Utah since the pandemic began last March.

The Utah Department of Health confirmed the state’s first case of what’s frequently called the “U.K. variant,” a mutation that led to a lockdown in Britain. The virus strain spreads about 50% faster, according to British researchers, and is anticipated to lead to a rapid rise in new cases throughout the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the variant, which was first detected in the United States late last month in Colorado, could become the nation’s predominant COVID-19 strain by March and speed up the already rapid rise in cases.

Only 76 cases of the variant have been reported in the United States by the CDC as of Wednesday, in California, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maryland. That number climbed to 88 Friday, including the case in Utah and others in New Mexico and Nebraska.

Utah health officials had been doing genetic sequencing of positive COVID-19 samples to look for the variant, and the Salt Lake County Health Department conducted what was described as a routine investigation and contact tracing of the case.

Oakeson said while the United States lags behind other countries in the process used to detect the variant, Utah is one of the states ramping up the effort. He said Utah should soon have the capacity to handle the sequencing of 3,000 testing samples every other day.

Vaccine reserve shortage

Also Friday, Utah and other states learned that there are no vaccine reserves available to boost the number of doses being distributed, despite Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar saying earlier this week that vaccines held for second doses would be released, potentially doubling what states would receive.

Rich Lakin, immunization director for the Utah Department of Health, told the Deseret News the department was notified Friday by the head of Operation Warp Speed, which is overseeing vaccine distribution, that states should not expect more than an additional 2% to 5% of doses because that’s all that has been set aside.

Lakin said Utah had not counted on getting more than the 33,000 or so doses already allotted, based on population and shared with drugstore chains that are vaccinating long-term care facility patients and staff, calling himself “very skeptical” about the possibility of a sudden windfall.

“They didn’t relay the message very well,” he said, after the Washington Post reported Friday there are no vaccine stockpiles. Lakin said Operation Warp Speed was caught off guard by Azar’s announcement, “It was a surprise to them, by the way, when the Trump administration said, ‘We’re releasing all the doses.’”

President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team had said earlier this month the new administration would move to release all doses in an attempt to get more people vaccinated more quickly, something that had already been done in Britain.

Some states, like Oregon, were relying on the additional doses promised by Azar as efforts get underway to vaccinate older Americans as well as those with underlying medical conditions. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, labeled it “a deception on a national scale.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was more measured.

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“We continue to work with the outgoing and incoming administrations to gain more clarity on the amount and rhythm of vaccines coming to our state,” Cox, a Republican, said in a statement. “We are hopeful that we will see an increased amount of vaccines soon.”

Utah death toll: 1,472

Utah’s 13 local health departments are beginning vaccinations of residents 70 and older, following front-line hospital and other health care workers, long-term care facility patients, emergency personnel and staff, first responders, and teachers and school staffs.

The state said as of Friday, 142,751 vaccine doses have administered, according to a health department survey, an increase of 9,544.

Currently, 584 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, bringing the total hospitalizations in the state to more than 12,300. Utah’s death toll from the virus has now reached 1,472. The 12 deaths reported Friday are:

  • Two Salt Lake County men, both between the ages of 45 and 64, who were both hospitalized at time of death.
  • Two Salt Lake County men, 65-84, both hospitalized.
  • Two Salt Lake County men, 65-84, long-term care facility residents.
  • A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Tooele County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Utah County man, older than 85, hospitalized. 
  • A Washington County man, 65-84, and a long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County woman, 65-84, who was not hospitalized at time of death.
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