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More Contagious COVID-19 Variant Detected In Wisconsin

Jack Hurbanis
Health officials stressed the importance of mask wearing and social distancing as the new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 has arrived in Wisconsin.

Updated at 4:50 p.m.

A new, more contagious form of the COVID-19 virus has been detected in Wisconsin, health officials said Wednesday.

State epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard told reporters during a video conference that state health officials received confirmation Tuesday that the variant had been detected through routine genome sequencing of a positive COVID-19 test for an Eau Claire County resident.

Westergaard said he had no information about the person other than he or she had traveled internationally in the two weeks before he or she was tested.

Elizabeth Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said the person tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of December when the individual returned from the trip.

Contact tracers determined the individual had interacted only with members of his or her own household and all of them quarantined in their home, Giese said. She declined to release any further information about the person.

“We do not expect from this specific case for there to be community spread,” she said. “We did identify all the close contacts. They did all stay home. (But) we also know this variant strain is likely going to be circulating across our state."

The variant was first discovered in England in November and December. It's since turned up in Colorado, California, Florida, Minnesota, New York and Georgia.

Health officials have said the variant is more easily transmissible — Westergaard said researchers believe it's nearly twice as contagious as the original COVID-19 virus — but it isn't any deadlier and vaccines should be effective against it.

Westergaard said researchers aren't sure why the variant is more contagious. It may attach more tightly to cell receptors in the body or it may take fewer variant particles to cause infection than the original COVID-19 virus, he said.

Only about 1% of positive tests in the state are routinely sequenced, which means the variant could be more widespread than anyone realizes, Westergaard said. He cautioned people to continue to wear masks, stay socially distanced and avoid gatherings.

“It could be spreading in a more generalized way,” he said. “Is more of it out there? We don't have enough data to estimate how prevalent it is, but it's probably more than we know about.”

The number of COVID-19 infections in the state continued to drop for the fifth straight day. State health officials reported 2,134 newly confirmed cases and 37 more deaths on Wednesday. The state has now seen 513,270 infections and 5,248 deaths since the pandemic began in March.

About 28,000 cases were active as of Wednesday. The mortality rate remained at 1%.

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