By CBS3 Staff

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Local health officials have identified the highly contagious strain of COVID-19 in a person from Bucks County. This comes as the CDC said Friday that it expects this new variant to rapidly spread across the country.

The new strain has been sweeping across England and is expected to do the same here in the United States. Now it’s been identified in a person from our region and experts believe this is just the beginning.

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With the CDC sounding a new alarm about the UK strain of COVID-19, the second case in Pennsylvania has been identified in Bucks County.

It was found in a woman in her 50s who was briefly hospitalized during the last week of December but has since recovered. Officials say she had contact with a COVID-19 positive person who had been in England.

“If you consider there is not much of a travel restriction between the U.S. and Great Britain, we have to assume it’s been in most parts of the country,” said Dr. Jose Torradas, a Bucks County ER doctor. “It’s been around for a while, so unless you’re from a super rural area that doesn’t get a lot of outside visitors, there is probably someone with that strain has been infected.”

Dr. David Damsker, the director of the Bucks County Health Department, said the county doesn’t have evidence that the individual spread the variant into the community but said, “If you have one case in the community, there’s a lot of cases in the community.”

The new variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, has now been detected in 11 states.

“It’s concerning to see a variant that may have evolved to grow better on people, to transmit better between people, it is a worry to see this new strain,” Frederic Bushman, chair of Microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, said.

Bushman has a sophisticated lab at the University of Pennsylvania that identified the local case.

“We prepared RNA from the sample. We carried out viral whole-genome sequencing and that allows us to match up with other strains from around the world,” Bushman said, “and this one matched up with the U.K. variant.”

The new variant is more contagious than the original COVID virus, but not more deadly.

Experts believe the vaccines will still be effective, but federal health officials are concerned this will soon become the prominent strain and infect more people.

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“As long as we keep doing the same things we talk about every day, wear your mask, staying apart and getting your vaccine when it’s your turn, that’s how we’re going to reduce the numbers of cases of coronavirus, regardless of what variant we’re talking about it,” Damsker said.

Torradas, who is also helping coordinate the rollout of the vaccine to high-risk groups in the Hispanic and African American populations, agrees this could become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S.

“It’s not that it’s necessarily competing with the other strain, but if that happens to spread twice as fast or 70% faster as the models show, that’s why it could become the dominant strain,” he said.

He says the two approved vaccines should still offer protection even against this strain, but he worries slow vaccination rollout and COVID fatigue could mean many more infections, and unfortunately, more deaths.

“We need to maintain vigilance,” Torradas said. “We’re starting to let our guard down with some of these simple rules.”

The first variant case in Pennsylvania was found near Harrisburg.

Officials say the reason more cases haven’t been identified is that it requires special testing, like what they’re doing at Penn.

CBS3’s Stephanie Stahl and Greg Argos contributed to this report.


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