ATLANTA - Georgia health officials say a fifth person has tested positive for a variant strain the coronavirus.
The new strain, which first surfaced in the United Kingdom is known as B.1.1.7.
Scientists say it isn't more severe or deadly, but it is up to 50% more transmissible than other strains of the virus.
The variant has led to a record surge in infections and hospitalizations in the UK, and a report published Friday by a British government scientific committee noted there was a "realistic possibility" the new variant may be deadlier than current strains of the virus.
Kaiser Permanente of Georgia epidemiologist Dr. Felipe Lobelo says the UK variant is concerning because it has a high number of changes in the spike protein on the surface of the virus, which allows the virus to grab onto and infect healthy cells in the upper respiratory tract.
Because it is more transmissible, Dr. Lobelo says, it requires more precautions.
"If, before we had this 15-minute window with someone being a high-risk situation, maybe that window now shortens to 5 minutes, again, because the virus is more contagious," Lobelo says. "So, you have to double down in terms of wearing a mask. If you have access to an N95, especially if you're in indoor environments, it's a good idea to use an N95."
Medical grade N95 masks are still in short supply and needed by health care workers.
There are alternatives, like KN95 and KF94 masks, that can be purchased online.
If you wear a cloth mask, use one with two or three layers rather than one.
"And, obviously try to keep your distance," Dr. Lobelo says. "Because this strain, we know it's here, and it's going to lead to more infections. So, we need to double down on our defenses before we get rollout of vaccination that is wide enough in order to diminish this transmission."
As of Thursday, nearly 600,000 Georgians had been vaccinated, most of them getting their first of two shots.
But, with the state receiving just 120,000 doses a week, trying to vaccinate enough people out ahead of the variant's spread has been challenging.
And, Lobelo says, Georgia hospitals are already strained.
As of Friday, 5,300 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Georgia, and 92% of ICU beds full.
"If this continues for too many more weeks, we'll be moving towards a situation similar to Los Angeles, where there are crisis standards of care, where the ICUs are so full, they cannot take too many more people," he says.
This variant is transmitted the same way as more common strains of the virus.
So, Dr. Lobelo recommends the same safety precautions.
Wear a mask anytime you leave your home, he says, avoid close contact and crowded, indoor settings.
Download the FOX 5 Atlanta app for breaking news and weather alerts.