Head Of County Board Of Health Says Highly Contagious U.K. Variant Is Likely Already In Western PA

Jan 6, 2021

It is likely the new strain of the coronavirus that was first identified in the U.K. is already circulating in Allegheny County, according to the chair of the county’s board of health.

“The public health messages don’t change [because of the new strain] ... We need to continue to hunker down, follow all the masking, physical distancing, and other mitigation efforts that we’re already doing," said Dr. Lee Harrison, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, during a Wednesday board meeting

While the U.K. variant is not more deadly than current dominate strain of the coronavirus, it is more contagious--by perhaps more than 50 percent. Therefore, as this strain spreads, cases will increase—which means hospitalizations and deaths will also rise.

Some infectious disease researchers estimate that the U.K. variant will become the predominate strain on this side of the Atlantic by March.

Researchers say the new COVID vaccines are effective on this variant. Therefore it’s imperative that the pace of the current vaccination campaign—which has been criticized for being sluggish—picks up quickly.

State data show that more than 17,500 people in Allegheny County have received their first doses of the immunizations.

Right now, the COVID vaccine rollout is in stage 1A—only health care workers, and residents and staff of nursing homes, are eligible to receive vaccinations.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 812,600 Pennsylvanians fall into the 1A category. Based on these numbers, the county health department says roughly 83,000 Allegheny County residents are in that group. Therefore, local administration of the first dose for this initial stage is about 20% complete.

Bogen said many of the people distributing vaccinations are with the county’s medical reserve corps—which is a volunteer organization staffed by people medical and non-medical backgrounds.

“The state has approved a whole lot more of people to start vaccinating in the county, and will be spending them vaccine soon,” she said. “Stay tuned. I really expect this to ramp up very quickly.”