The Massachusetts Department of Public Health says the highly contagious strain of COVID-19 that originated in the United Kingdom is now likely being spread throughout the community, since the majority of people who have it have not traveled.
Nineteen more cases of the U.K. variant of the coronavirus have been discovered, health officials announced Sunday. The total number of known cases of the variant in Massachusetts is now at 29.
“We’re very concerned because this may be the beginning of the third wave,” Worcester Health and Human Services Commissioner Dr. Mattie Castiel said.
With fears over a surge in cases, experts say it's critical to reduce infections.
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“We’re trying to combat the U.K. variant right now. We know that it’s 50 percent more transmissible,” Castiel said. “We need to be very vigilant about the washing of the hands, the distancing and then wearing double masking is in particular important during these times.”
Here's everything you need to know about its presence in New England.
What is the UK variant?
The B.1.1.7 variant has several mutations that affect the "spike protein" on the virus surface that attaches to human cells. This particular coronavirus strain is known to spread more easily and has caused a rapid surge of cases in the U.K. and several other countries.
The variant was first detected in the United States in late December 2020. Florida has the most reported cases of any state, with 379, followed by California at 184. Most other U.S. states are still in the single or low double digits.
A report released last week said the B.1.1.7 variant is spreading quickly and could become dominant in the U.S. by late March. The study shows the U.S. is on a similar trajectory to other countries where the variant has already become prevalent.
Health officials said the best way to avoid it is more of the same -- mask wearing, social distancing and staying home if you are sick.
Where in Massachusetts has it been found so far?
There have been 17 cases in Worcester County, six in Norfolk County, two each in Middlesex and Plymouth counties, and one each in Hampden and Suffolk counties.
The ages of those affected range from 4 to nearly 70 years old, according to health officials. They include 13 females and 16 males.
The B.1.1.7 variant was first detected in Massachusetts on Jan. 17. The first case was in a Boston woman in her 20s who had traveled to the U.K. and returned back to Boston on Jan. 3, where she remained at Logan International Airport for a two-hour layover before flying on to another state, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.
Where else in the Northeast has it been found?
The U.K. variant has also been identified in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and in wastewater in Vermont. Northeast states like New York (59), Pennsylvania (26) and New Jersey (38) also have numerous identified cases.
A total of 20 cases have been identified in Connecticut so far.
On Feb. 10, Maine health officials confirmed the first Maine case of the highly contagious COVID variant first identified in the United Kingdom. The variant was detected in a Franklin County resident who had recently traveled internationally, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
And on Feb. 11, two mutations associated with the B.1.1.7 variant were found in wastewater testing being conducted by the City of Burlington, according to the Vermont Department of Public Health. That is seen as a strong indicator that the variant is present in the community.
New Hampshire health officials announced Feb. 12 that the B.1.1.7 variant was found in an adult resident of Hillsborough County who had close contact with someone diagnosed with the coronavirus after travelling internationally.
Will the available vaccines help?
The CDC says the especially contagious strain of the virus could be even deadlier than other variants, but experts say the coronavirus vaccines will help.
“All the data that we have thus far indicates that the vaccine is effective against preventing infection with this particular variant,” said Dr. David Banach, an epidemiologist at the UConn School of Medicine.
To that end, a mass vaccination clinic is opening Tuesday in Worcester, at Worcester State University.