Photo by CDC/API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo by CDC/API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Although widespread across the state, the cases are concentrated in South Florida’s Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties.

B.1.1.7., the more contagious COVID-19 variant first identified in England, is spreading at a fast clip across the Sunshine State. According to the update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued Wednesday night, Florida and California are tied for the most identified cases of the variant of COVID-19, with 92 cases each.

However, the Sunshine State leads nationally in sequencing for mutations of the virus, state health officials say, with most cases found in South Florida. Sequencing analyzes the virus sample taken from a diagnosed patient and compares it with other cases.

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The breakdown of the 92 cases detected so far in 19 counties is as follows: Broward: 28 cases; Miami-Dade: 23; Palm Beach: 9; Seven cases were found in Hillsborough; six in Seminole; four in Pinellas; two in Lee and Osceola counties; and one in Brevard, Charlotte, Collier, Escambia, Hendry, Martin, Pasco, Polk, Sumter, Suwannee and Volusia counties.

First Detection

On New Year’s Day, Florida health officials announced that a 27-year-old man in Martin County, who had no travel history, had contracted the B.1.1.7 strain of the virus, which is thought to be significantly more contagious and slightly deadlier than the initial version of the virus.

At this time it is unknown if the UK and other variants from South Africa, Brazil, and California are more dangerous than the original, but they appear to be more contagious, which can lead to more deaths. One study from Britain’s national scientists suggested the new strain is slightly deadlier than the original, but the overall risk of death with both versions is still similar.

“The Virus Is Racing”

Marco Salemi, a University of Florida professor and molecular biologist who has been studying the spread of infectious diseases for 30 years, told the Miami Herald that he finds the pace at which officials are discovering the virus “quite disturbing.”

This heightens the urgency of vaccinating the public, he says, as the virus “is racing to infect more and more people, and we are racing to make potential targets of the virus more and more resistant. Right now, the virus is outpacing us.”

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The Role of Vaccines

The known variants of the virus could potentially have implications for the potency of the current COVID vaccines, though—based on early studies—they are still deemed by manufacturers to be protective. Current data suggests that the Moderna vaccine will protect against the new variant, although, according to the company, the efficacy of the shot was diminished. As a precaution the company has begun designing a new potential vaccine that could be added to the current two-dose inoculation. 

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Monitoring the Virus

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health (DOH) said the agency is a “national leader” in monitoring the virus for mutations.

“By leading in sequencing, the Department is actively looking for the variant in Florida, which is why more cases are being discovered [in the state],” Jason Mahon, DOH spokesperson, said to the USA TODAY Network-Florida.

At the same time, researchers at several Florida universities are working to understand the implications of mutations for contagiousness, vaccines, and other aspects of the pandemic.