First case of 'highly contagious' COVID-19 variant reported in Georgia

The first case of the COVID-19 variant, the same variant discovered in the U.K and in several other counties and U.S. states, has been identified in Georgia, health officials report.

COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 was discovered during an analysis of a specimen sent by a pharmacy in Georgia to a commercial lab, according to the Department of Public Health. They stated that the Georgia resident is an 18-year-old male with no travel history, and is currently in isolation at home.

GDPH was working to identify close contacts of the individual and said it will monitor them closely and test them for the variant.

Preliminary epidemiologic information suggests that this variant is significantly more contagious than the SARS-CoV-2 virus. So far, there is no evidence that the B.1.1.7 variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.

RELATED: Study finds new UK coronavirus variant is 'substantially' more transmissible

"The emergence of this variant in our state should be a wake-up call for all Georgians," said DPH Commissioner Katheen E. Toomey, M.D., M.P.H. "Even as we begin rollout of a COVID19 vaccine, we must not let down our guard and ignore basic prevention measures – wear a mask, social distance and wash your hands frequently."

GDPH officials said they will be working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to watch for emerging COVID-19 variants.

FOX 5 spoke with Dr. John T. Brooks, who is the Chief Medical Officer for the CDC Emergency COVID-19 Response last week, who said virus mutations are a normal part of a virus' life, but even though the B.1.1.7 variant appears to be faster-spreading, it doesn't appear to be more dangerous.

"This virus has evolved so that it can stick more easily to our cells, so that means it takes less of it to infect you and can infect you more readily," said Dr. Brooks.

Dr. Brooks said the variant could cause hospitalizations to swell, something the Georgia Department of Public Health reported was at the highest since the start of the pandemic. The GDPH reported 5,286 current hospitalizations on Tuesday. That breaks the old record set on April 30. State health officials said most hospitals are at or near capacity with 31.3% of all patients being COVID-related.

The GDPH also added more than 6,000 new confirmed cases on Tuesday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 597,208. This does not include the 108,946 cases confirmed through antigen testing.

The state reports 9,966 confirmed deaths and 1,106 probable deaths from the virus as of Tuesday afternoon.

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