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Public Health Officials Say More Contagious Coronavirus Variant May Be Circulating In Montana

The novel coronavirus.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Montana’s health department Wednesday confirmed the first three cases of COVID-19 caused by a virus variant from the United Kingdom. Gallatin County says the lack of connection between the cases and absence of travel history are indications that the variant may be circulating widely in Montana and urges people to take precautions to prevent its spread.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department says the three people infected with the U.K. variant lived in different parts of the county and that officials have not identified any evident connection between them.

All three people were under 50 years of age, according to the press release. One was hospitalized but all three have recovered and are no longer in isolation.

The state has been conducting surveillance for COVID-19 variant strains for several weeks.

Health Officer Matt Kelley says the presence of the variant strain reinforces the importance of public health rules, such as requiring use of face coverings in public settings, that help slow spread and protect the most vulnerable.

“These measures are vitally important to protecting the thousands of Montanans who do not yet have access to the vaccine,” Kelley said.

State Medical Officer Greg Holzman says one of the big concerns with the U.K. variant is that it’s more contagious than the original virus that causes COVID-19.

“I don’t think this is the time to drop all our guard and move forward as individuals. I think we are close. We need to get more people vaccinated and in Montana, we’re doing a really good job of that. In the country, we’re getting more and more vaccines available,” Holzman said.

He says continuing efforts like mask wearing, avoiding crowds and hand washing are still really important in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, and slowing down the emergence of new virus strains.

Holzman says the more a virus spreads, the more likely it will mutate into new variants, which could make the current arsenal of vaccines less effective.

“I think the positive thing on the U.K. variant that we know of so far is that our vaccines are pretty good coverage for that. The South African variant is a little bit more concerning,” Holzman said.

Lab experiments hint that the South African variant could dampen the effectiveness of the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, which is why the companies are testing newly adjusted vaccines.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized last Saturday, was found to be over 60 percent effective in South Africa where the South African variant is the leading cause of COVID-19.