OAKLAND — More than two dozen new cases of the coronavirus strain that emerged in the United Kingdom have now been identified in San Diego County, as health officials warn that the potentially more contagious variant is likely elsewhere in the state already.
The county’s health agency on Tuesday reported that 24 new cases had been confirmed through genome sequencing of samples collected from Dec. 27 through Dec. 31. Four additional positive tests directly linked to those confirmed cases are expected to show the same strain, known as B.1.1.7. Those are by far the highest number of cases detected in California so far.
The mutated variant was confirmed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to have appeared in San Diego County last week, shortly after its presence in the United States was first documented in Colorado. The strain’s potential for wider spread could lead to more fatalities, even if the variant itself may not be more deadlier to a patient who contracts it.
The new strain has become a major cause for concern in a state that has seen a record surge since November. Hospitals are filled to capacity in Southern California and the Central Valley, forcing health care officials to ration care for patients in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, like many states, California’s vaccine rollout has been slow — to the point where Newsom conceded Monday it was “not good enough.”
None of the 24 confirmed San Diego County patients, who range in age from 10 to over 70, are thought to have recent travel histories, pointing to an increase in community spread of the strain. Officials say that none of the infected individuals has died and one woman is recovering at home after being hospitalized.
Emerging variants of the coronavirus, including another strain recently discovered in South Africa, are believed to be more contagious than the virus that has already wreaked havoc on California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Tuesday, four cases had been identified in San Diego County and two in San Bernardino County, though health officials in other regions acknowledged that genome sequencing of samples is ongoing and that sample sizes have so far been small.
“We imagine, in fact one should just anticipate, that there will be others identified,” Newsom said Monday after announcing new cases in San Diego and San Bernardino.
In Los Angeles County, public health director Barbara Ferrer told supervisors on Tuesday that the U.K. variant has likely already infected people there and that it’s only a matter of time before its presence is confirmed.
Los Angeles health officials have sequenced just 80 samples to date, none of which have contained the genetic markers of the U.K. or South African variants. However, Ferrer cautioned that the sequencing process takes multiple days and the county’s sheer number of cases creates low odds of avoiding the new strains.
“We anticipate given how many people are testing positive here in LA County, that the variant is probably here and as we continue to do testing, and the CDC does some testing on some of our samples, we’re likely to find it.”
Los Angeles County has already been devastated by a holiday season surge of the original coronavirus strain, with new cases hovering in the range of 13,000 to 15,000 per day and hundreds of individuals succumbing to the virus in recent days.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health made the grim announcement that the total number of deaths had reached 11,000.
The region’s current spike in cases — a 905 percent increase since November 1, according to Ferrer — has been linked to the Thanksgiving holiday and doesn’t yet include an even deadlier wave anticipated after hundred of thousands of residents traveled during Christmas and New Year’s.
Already, the county’s overtaxed hospitals and Emergency Medical Services Agency have had to make decisions about who will receive care amid a shortage of beds, with ambulance crews told not to transport patients whose hearts have stopped and cannot be restarted in the field.
Hospitals around Los Angeles have also suffered from oxygen shortages, prompting EMS to circulate a memo Monday that only patients with oxygen saturation levels below 90 percent should be given supplemental supply.
San Francisco Public Health Director Grant Colfax said Tuesday that the new strain has not yet been detected in that county. But “we would not be surprised if and when it is detected in San Francisco or in the region,” he said at a press briefing.
Colfax said a number of labs, including the University of California, San Francisco, are conducting genome testing in an effort to detect the new strain. “Unfortunately there’s not a lot of capacity to do that so only a very small number of samples are sent to laboratories for this subtyping,” he said.
Health officials in Fresno County similarly said that U.K. variant had not yet been identified in the region, but that the chances of it being found in the near future are significant.
Victoria Colliver contributed to this story.