Florida first state to surpass 200 cases of more-contagious variant of COVID virus

Jeffrey Schweers
Capital Bureau

Florida has become the first state to have more than 200 cases of the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first discovered in England.

In one month, the number of B.1.1.7 cases in Florida leaped more than eightfold — from 22 to 201 — evidence that the more contagious strain is on pace to eclipse the original strain that causes COVID-19.

Florida has more than the entire country had Jan. 22, and 51 more than the next highest state, California. New York trails at a distant third with 59 cases identified, followed by Colorado with 33, Michigan with 29 and Georgia with 23.

More:The more contagious B.1.1.7 COVID variant is spreading quickly across Florida

State officials continue to attribute that high number to Florida leading other states in the rate of sequencing for mutations of the COVID-19 virus. As of Friday, the Florida Department of Health has sequenced 4,224 COVID-19 specimens, with more than 220 sequenced last week, public health officials said.

“By leading in sequencing, the Department is actively looking for the variant in Florida, which is why more cases are being discovered in Florida,” DOH spokesman Jason Mahon said in an email responding to a public records request.

Sequencing is looking at the greater makeup of a given coronavirus organism isolated from someone who tested positive, Dr. Cindy Prins, assistant dean for educational affairs and clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, said in a previous article.

The United Kingdom took the lead in sequencing, which is why the B.1.1.7. variant was discovered there first.

The first case of B.1.1.7 in Florida was identified in late December, a 27-year-old Martin County man with no history of travel. “It may have been a single introduction from the U.K. and spread through Florida,” Prins said.

More:Leon County Health Department confirms local cases of UK COVID-19 variant

South Florida counties continue to have the most cases of B.1.1.7 cases in Florida, with Broward in the lead with57, Dade with 40, and Palm Beach with 22 as of Friday. Hillsborough had 20 and Pinellas had 19. Seminole and Pasco both had 6 and Osceola had five.

Eight counties, including Lee, Collier, Volusia, Leon, St. Lucie and Brevard had two each, while another 10 had one each.

A report published Sunday by a group of university epidemiologists and private genomic researchers working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the B.1.1.7 variant has spread to at least 30 states, is 35-45% more transmissible across the country, doubling in relative frequency about every week and a half.

“These findings show that B.1.1.7 will likely become the dominant variant in many U.S. states by March 2021, leading to further surges of COVID-19 in the country, unless urgent mitigation efforts are immediately implemented,” the report said.

Those findings are consistent with modeling by the CDC. The variant will become dominant once sequencing shows it responsible for 50% of the tests that come back positive for COVID-19, officials said.

Florida has a higher growth rate for B.1.1.7. than California, the study found. Florida had a doubling time of 38–49% with a doubling time of 9 days, compared to rates of 29–37% and a doubling of 12 days in California.

“This difference may be due to differences in statewide or regional social distancing protocols or mobility patterns, population density, biases in sampling and/or demographics, or competition from other SARS–CoV–2 variants, like the B.1.429 variant recently described in California,” the report said.

The study shows that the B.1.1.7 variant has been in the U.S. since at least November, and spreading between states since December.

While "under-sampling and bias" in the research group’s sequencing make it difficult to estimate which direction the virus is spreading across the U.S., the report said, evidence shows it is migrating between Florida and Georgia, Florida and Minnesota, Florida and Michigan and between the southern states of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

"We know that many of these cases have involved individuals with no recent history of international travel — indicating it is spreading throughout communities,” said James Lu, founder and president of Helix, a genome sequencing company that helped in the study and is a contractor with the CDC for genome sequencing.

One reason Florida leads the nation is that it was one of two states to show early indication of the B.1.1.7. variant spreading in the community, Lu said. California is the other.

"We are anticipating other states will catch up," he said. "The entire country is heading in that trajectory."

Having a variant that is more contagious than other variants has the potential to increase the infection rate, and is a harbinger of a new potential spike, he said, but having a vaccine for the first time could act as a countervailing force.

Still, he said, the most important thing is to continue to practice social distancing and wearing a mask. 

"The best thing we can do right now is mitigation," Lu said.

Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

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