UK COVID-19 variant strain identified in Allegheny County patient

PITTSBURGH — Health officials with the Allegheny County Health Department reported that the first case of the UK variant of COVID-19 has been identified in a patient in the county.

The UK variant is more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus.

The person does not know how they contracted the virus. ACHD director Dr. Debra Bogen said at a news conference Wednesday that she suspects this coronavirus strain has been in the county “for a while.”

Two cases of that strain have been found in Pennsylvania already, one in Centre County and the other in Bucks County.

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Despite this news, Bogen said it was encouraging that the number of cases and hospitalizations in the county was dropping. She said the positivity rate in the county was still at 6% and the number of new cases was about 200 per day.

“We’ve seen how quickly this virus can spread if we drop our guard,” Bogen said.

What is the UK Variant?

Officials in the United Kingdom reported a variant of COVID-19 in the fall. Researchers said it spreads easily and quickly, and it could be associated with a higher risk of death compared to other versions of the virus.

>>>RELATED: UK chief scientist says new virus variant may be more deadly

This strain was first identified in the U.S. in December. By the end of January, at least 122 cases of the new strain were reported across the county in 20 states. Health officials said this could become the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S. by March.

Program launched to vaccinate seniors

Bogen announced the launch of a new program to start vaccinating seniors living in county housing authority buildings. She said across the county, 80% of deaths from the virus were among people aged 65 and older. In the county, that rate was higher, at 90% of deaths. Bogen also said more than 60% of people hospitalized in the county were 65 or older.

“We know that seniors are less likely in general to have access to computers or the internet to make an appointment,” Bogen said.

Bogen said planning is ongoing to open up more vaccination clinics around the county so that people don’t have to travel as far to get the vaccine.

Pitt researcher studying how you can better protect yourself

A University of Pittsburgh professor told Channel 11 people shouldn’t panic, but they need to take the UK variant seriously and double-down on masking up.

“Unfortunately it’s to be expected. It’s been found in more than 30 states in the U.S. and previously been found elsewhere in the state of PA, so it’s as just a matter of time,” said Dr. Vaughn Cooper, a microbiology and molecular genetics professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “It is going to both increase the number and frequency here, but it’s going to increase the number of total infections, meaning schools will have a real challenge staying open and other public facilities ... spring sports, all the things that we all really enjoy about the region.”

The COVID-19 vaccine does protect against the strain of the virus, but the problem is that the vaccine rollout is moving slowly across Pennsylvania.

“A number of experts are recommending that we really up our mask game and really strongly consider double-masking. By that I mean using a lightweight surgical mask underneath a well fitting-cloth mask,” Cooper said. “I think this is a battle between vaccine rollout and tightening our transmission game. I foresee that the rates of reduction in cases may slow down, so the cases may flatline and even bump back up in the region as this more transmissible variant takes a foothold.”

UPMC researchers are continuing to examine samples of the virus in order to detect any new cases of the variant.