JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Duval County Health Department confirmed Friday that one case of the COVID variant first identified in the United Kingdom has been found in Jacksonville. But health experts warn the number could actually be much higher.
According to data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated Thursday evening, 347 cases of this B.1.1.7 variant have been found in Florida. That more than one-third of the 981 cases identified in the United States so far.
Last week, 825,000 cases of COVID-19 were identified in the United States, according to CDC, while only an average of 6,000 samples each week are given the genomic sequencing needed to detect the variant.
Also, while standard COVID-19 tests come back in hours or a couple of days, additional testing to identify the variant takes much longer, according to UF Health director of infectious disease Chad Neilsen.
“Here in our hospital, if I chose to send it to a reference center -- if I sent it today, I would likely not have results for a couple of weeks,” Neilsen said.
That’s because only specially equipped labs can test for the variants.
“The vast majority of those (347 cases) we’re actually sequenced outside of Florida -- at a research center in California,” Neilsen said. “We just don’t have the robust ability in Florida or the United States to do this on a wide scale.”
Neilsen believes we have seen the most cases in Florida because a lot of people travel here.
“You also have a variety of laws and mandates across each county and, I think, that inhibits us as a state to control COVID,” Neilsen said.
If there is good news, it’s that both vaccines currently being given to senior citizens and health care workers are believed to be effective against the variant, according to a health department spokeswoman.
Research published Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests a variant first identified in the Los Angeles area last year accounted for about 44% of Southern California cases by late January, nearly double from a month earlier. Study co-author Jasmine Plummer, a Cedars-Sinai researcher, said more research is needed to determine if the variant spreads more easily than other COVID-19 variants or causes more disease.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, wrote in an accompanying editorial that new variants likely will continue to emerge until the spread of the virus is reduced.
This announcement of a variant in Jacksonville comes one day after a student at the University of Central Florida was diagnosed with the U.K. variant of the coronavirus, which is thought to be more easily transmissible. The unidentified student tested positive this week, Michael Deichen, associate vice president of UCF Student Health Services said Thursday in a statement on the university’s website.
The Orlando-based university is one of the nation's largest with more than 66,000 students. University officials said the student was isolated and contact tracing measures were taken.
“The tools that we use to fight this variant are no different than the steps we have taken for nearly a year," Deichen said. “COVID-19 and these new variants are not easily transmissible when face coverings are worn properly, physical distancing is maintained, and hands are regularly sanitized."
The Florida Department of Health announced the state’s first case of the U.K. variant at the end of last year, and the state now leads the nation in cases of the variant, with almost 350 confirmed diagnoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tens of thousands of college students around the nation have tested positive for the virus, and some campuses have seen spikes in cases with students returning to campus.