Officials confirm Juneau’s first COVID case caused by more contagious virus variant

Graduate student Will George working at a UAA lab that analyzes COVID-19 test samples in search of variants. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Genomic sequencing has confirmed the first positive case of COVID-19 in Juneau that was caused by a more contagious variant of the virus.

Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove said the Juneau case was caused by the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the United Kingdom. It was identified in someone who tested positive back on March 7.

“We do know there’s a variant in town. We knew it was just a matter of time. We don’t know how many positives that we are experiencing now are related to that variant,” Cosgrove said during a weekly community update on Tuesday.

Cosgrove said the variant was noted in a recent report from state labs that are sequencing samples from around the state in batches. She said the person who had it was taking quarantine precautions seriously, but, “I think it’s just safe to assume that variants are present and that we should continue to safeguard against them. I think that’s really the safest thing that we could be doing right now as a community.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the B.1.1.7 variant had become the most prevalent strain in the country. Besides being more transmissible, it’s also of greater concern because it may lead to more severe cases of COVID-19, though there isn’t scientific consensus on that yet.

Cosgrove said its arrival is all the more reason to get vaccinated and continue other preventative measures, like masking and social distancing.

Vaccine appointments are available through local health care providers, pharmacies and city clinics at Centennial Hall. Officials estimate nearly four out of 10 Juneau residents have been fully vaccinated.

In related news, Cosgrove briefed the Juneau Assembly on Monday about some proposed changes to how officials gauge COVID-19 risk level in the community, and the related community restrictions. There’s two new risk factors they’d weigh: how widely vaccinated the community is, and how prevalent more contagious variants of the virus are in Juneau.

The minimal risk tier, which Juneau is in now, would be subdivided into three tiers. The higher the vaccination rate, the more permissive things would get when it comes to masks, social distancing and indoor gatherings.

The Assembly is expected to vote on the changes at its April 26 meeting.

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