19 cases of U.K. variant of COVID-19 found in metro Atlanta

ATLANTA — There are now 19 cases of a highly-contagious COVID-19 variant in the metro Atlanta area, officials with the Georgia Department of Health said Monday.

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The variant circulating in Georgia is the same as the one in the United Kingdom. So far, no other variants have been discovered in the state.

The cases were in Carroll, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett and Paulding counties. The people infected were from ages 15 to 61.

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The Georgia Department of Health is working to identify close contacts of people infected.

“The CDC has said this U.K. variant is likely to be the dominant strain in the U.S. by sometime in March,” said Kathleen E. Toomey, M.D., M.P.H., commissioner, Georgia Department of Public Health. “We must ensure we are taking every precaution right now to prevent transmission of COVID and to avoid a surge in hospitalizations and loss of life.”

Scientists believe this variant is significantly more contagious than the original virus and may increase the risk of death to those who become infected.

The state reported the first case of the UK variant in the state on Jan. 5.

There are many variants currently circulating around the world, but health experts are primarily concerned with the emergence of three.

Other variants first detected in South Africa and in Brazil also appear more contagious, experts say.

Health officials in South Carolina announced Thursday that the mutated version of the virus first identified in South Africa was found in two cases there.

Data so far suggest current vaccines should still protect against these variants, though there’s some concern their effectiveness may be slightly diminished. There is also evidence that some antibody treatments may be less effective against certain variants.

The emergence of variants is linked to ongoing surges since infections give viruses the chance to mutate and spread. It’s another reason experts stress the importance of mask wearing and social distancing.

[LINK: Where to find the COVID-19 vaccine in Georgia]