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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

First COVID-19 Variant Case In U.S. A Colorado National Guard Member

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Senior Master Sgt. John Rohrer
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Colorado National Guard
Colorado National Guard members process through decontamination after performing COVID-19 testing at a state veterans home in April 2020.

Two members of the Colorado National Guard are at the center of the state’s efforts to trace how a more-contagious variant of COVID-19, first encountered in the United Kingdom, is spreading in the United States. One of the members, a man in his 20s, was confirmed on Tuesday as the first case of the variant in the country.

A positive COVID-19 test on a second Guard member has not yet been confirmed but initial analysis indicated many of the same mutations associated with the variant. Both Guard members were among a group of six deployed on Dec. 23 to help fill a staffing void at Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Simla, a small town on the Eastern Plains.

“We are currently investigating two possibilities for how these individuals may have acquired their infections,” Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist said in an online call with reporters Wednesday.

Since mid-December, the nursing home in Simla has faced a COVID-19 outbreak. All 26 residents and 20 of 34 staffers have tested positive for the virus, Herlihy said. Four residents have died.

The two Guard members, including one confirmed to have the variant, could have been infected there, Herlihy said. However, it is also possible the Guard members became infected during other work or personal activities, she added. Both are isolated — one at his home in Arapahoe County, the other, whose gender was not identified, in a hotel in Lincoln County.

The state has sent a team to the nursing home to collect specimens from staffers and residents for further testing. Initial results have not discovered the variant, but Herlihy emphasized that testing is ongoing.

The variant is known as B.1.1.7 and is not considered to cause more severe cases of COVID-19. But health officials warn the variant is much more contagious and worry it could spark a surge of new infections, placing greater strains on already-stretched hospitals.

Herlihy gave no indication as to how the virus showed up in rural Colorado. Simla is in Elbert County, about 45 miles northeast of Colorado Springs.

“Neither of these cases has traveled internationally in the weeks prior to their illness,” Herlihy said.

The variant appears to have caused a spike in cases in England, prompting new lockdowns as well as bans on outbound travel. Several other countries have identified cases of the variant, including Canada.

U.S. officials said the one confirmed case in Colorado doesn’t appear to be isolated and that it has likely established itself in the U.S.

"We expect that there will be additional cases that are likely to be detected in the coming days," Jasmine Reed, a spokesperson for the federal Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, told KUNC on Tuesday.

Gov. Jared Polis, also participating in Wednesday’s call, said he expected more cases, too. He said people should continue to distance themselves by six feet when gathering with people outside their household. He also emphasized handwashing and that people wear masks.

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, which represents some 14,000 facilities across the country, issued a statement on Wednesday.

“This development comes at a time when long term care facilities are facing the worst outbreak since the spring,” the organization’s president and CEO, Mark Parkinson, said. “Soaring community spread has resulted in a record-breaking number of cases and deaths in nursing homes — nearly 25,000 cases and 4,000 deaths per week.”

COVID-19 vaccination clinics for long-term care facility residents and staffers began in Colorado on Monday. They are expected to take 12 weeks to complete.

On Wednesday afternoon, California announced its first confirmed case of the coronavirus variant. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the infection found in Southern California during an online conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Newsom did not provide any other details about the person who was infected.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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