PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island health officials announced Tuesday they have identified the state’s first cases of the new coronavirus variant associated with the United Kingdom.
The so-called “U.K. variant,” labeled B.1.1.7, was identified in three Rhode Island patients on Monday evening, the R.I. Department of Health said in a statement.
“One patient was in their 60s, one patient was in their 50s, and one patient was in their 20s,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said in a statement. Their cases are still under investigation, he said.
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Massachusetts had already announced its first case of the U.K. variant on Jan. 17, and was up to 29 cases as of Sunday, though no cases had been identified in Bristol County.
Experts have said the U.K. variant is likely to become the dominant strain of the coronavirus across the United States over the coming weeks. Scientists in the U.K. say it is more contagious and potentially more deadly than earlier strains of the virus.
No cases of two other variants — associated with Brazil and South Africa, respectively — have been identified in Rhode Island as of yet.
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The U.K. variant “is probably, best guess, about 5% of the infections right now in the country, but it will become dominant around the mid- to later part of March,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said Monday on MSNBC. “And in my mind that’s our deadline because by the time that happens we could start seeing really large spikes in cases.”
Rhode Island’s State Health Laboratories had the patients’ samples sequenced by the Broad Institute as part of its genomic surveillance program, Wendelken said. Funding for the sequencing program is provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The announcement of the variant’s detection in Rhode Island, while not unexpected, will likely add to the pressure on state officials to ramp up a vaccination campaign that is currently the slowest among all 50 states.
“This is why we have to be careful right now, and this is why also we have a race to get as many high-risk people vaccinated as possible by mid- to late March,” Jha said. “That should really be a target goal for all of us.”
Rhode Island officials say they expect the state to start making progress once two new state-run mass-vaccination sites open Thursday. One will be at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence and the other will be at the old Citizens Bank call center on Sockanosset Cross Road in Cranston.
“I know people are frustrated,” Health Department medical director Dr. James McDonald said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “I really hear that. I get it.” But he urged Rhode Islanders to stay positive, and emphasized the importance of wearing higher-quality masks.
McDonald also defended Rhode Island’s overall vaccination strategy, describing it as “very deliberate” and “targeted.” He showed data indicating the strategy has led to larger decreases in hospital admissions in Rhode Island compared with other states.
In its weekly data update Tuesday, the Health Department reported improvement in multiple key metrics related to the pandemic.
New hospital admissions fell from 250 last week to 174 this week, while new cases per 100,000 residents declined from 305 to 246. The percent of tests coming back positive dropped from 2.8% to 2.2%.
The state’s daily positivity rate on Tuesday came out to 2.6%, with 242 new coronavirus infections found and more than 9,100 tests administered the previous day.
Another 10 people in Rhode Island have died after contracting COVID-19, bringing the reported death toll to 2,334, the department said.
Hospitalizations ticked up to 197, with 36 patients in intensive care and 20 on ventilators.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Shaun Towne contributed to this report.