BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Health on Wednesday, Feb. 17, confirmed the state's first two cases of a COVID-19 variant that was initially found in the United Kingdom, though the two people are no longer infected.

One person had recently returned from domestic travel to a U.S. state with confirmed cases of the U.K. strain before becoming ill, and the second person determined to have the variant was a close contact of the first individual, the health department said.

An additional case of the U.K. variant is suspected and is under investigation. That person also came in close contact with the person who traveled domestically, said Kirby Kruger, the Department of Health's disease control director.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the U.K. variant is more infectious than other strains of the virus. Other COVID-19 strains have originated in Brazil and South Africa. Scientists estimate the U.K. variant is anywhere between 35% to 45% more transmissible than the strains commonly found in the U.S. Some experts say the U.K. variant is more deadly, but the CDC says further research is needed to confirm this finding.

Even though the variants are genetically different from one another and the strains commonly found in the U.S., early studies show the COVID-19 vaccines being administered nationwide are effective against the variants, according to the CDC.

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Determining whether a positive COVID-19 test is a result of a variant is a multi-step process for North Dakota’s public health lab, Kruger said. The lab processes some of the state’s COVID-19 PCR tests (also called molecular tests, which are different from the rapid antigen tests) and examines three "targets'' of the virus for each test. If one of the targets looks abnormal, then the lab analyzes it further for genome sequencing. Based on the sequencing, health officials can determine whether the COVID-19 positive test contains the same genetic makeup as the U.K. variant.

The two people who tested positive for the U.K. strain and the third suspected case were in isolation. But by the time the lab was able to confirm they were positive for the variant through genome sequencing, the three had surpassed their 10 days in isolation and were no longer infectious, Kruger said.

The health department declined to provide further information about the three individuals, including age, gender or county of residence.

Kruger said the department does not want to give residents a “false sense of security” because the two confirmed cases and one suspected case with the variant have recovered. “It certainly is no guarantee that they’re the only ones in North Dakota,” he said.

For the tests that are sent out of state for processing, Kruger said at least one of the labs sends information about the positives back to North Dakota for further examination to see whether there are variants, but this is not the case for all labs. That's why it's likely there are more variant cases in the state.

Some of the labs also do their own variant testing, though Kruger said he does "not know to what extent that is happening."

Additional strains, like the ones that originated in Brazil and South Africa, cannot be detected the same way as the U.K. strain. North Dakota’s lab conducts random sample screening tests for them by examining 48 random positive tests each week for the strains, Kruger said. Last month, Minnesota confirmed the first case of the Brazil variant in the nation.

Kruger emphasized that people should continue to practice social distancing, proper mask-wearing and good hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus.

As of Tuesday, there were 1,299 confirmed cases caused by COVID-19 variants in the U.S., with at least 42 states reporting confirmed cases of the U.K. strain, according to the CDC.

Sanford Health now has the capability to test for variants.

Identifying variants isn't usually important in treating COVID-19, said Dr. Avish Nagpal, who heads infection control at Sanford in Fargo. "It's more for research purposes and epidemiological purposes," he said.

Tracking mutations of the coronavirus is important in predicting whether the pandemic will produce a surge or trough, and therefore helps providers prepare for what's coming, Nagpal said. "It's kind of a cumbersome test so it's not possible to do every sample," he said, noting that doctors don't have different patient treatment options for different virus variants.

Vaccination, although proceeding at a gradual pace, is helping to curb the spread of the virus, Nagpal said. Statewide in North Dakota, 14.1% of residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, and active cases, which exceeded 10,000 at the peak last year, stayed below 800 recently.

"I do think the worst is behind us with this pandemic," he said.

North Dakota reports 123 new cases

The state health department reported 123 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, including:

  • 32 from Cass County, which includes Fargo and West Fargo.
  • 22 from Burleigh County, which includes Bismarck.
  • 15 from Grand Forks County.

No new deaths were reported on Wednesday, but at least 1,431 North Dakotans have died either due to or with COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, according to the health department. More than 61% of the deaths have occurred in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

COVID-19 hospitalizations decreased slightly on Wednesday to 43 residents, which is down significantly from the more than 350 North Dakotans who were hospitalized at one point in November.

Active COVID-19 cases in North Dakota increased slightly from Tuesday to 797 residents known to be infected with the virus. This is the lowest number of active cases the state has reported since July.

About 2.2% of the 5,457 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, and the average positivity rate of those tested in the last two weeks is about 2.5%.

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Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at Reporter Patrick Springer contributed to this report.