Maine health officials have detected the state’s first case of the more contagious COVID-19 variant that originated in the United Kingdom, just as decreasing case trends and increasing vaccinations started to offer signs of hope.

A resident of Franklin County with a history of recent international travel developed symptoms in early February and tested positive for COVID-19, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in a news release. The test sample was then sent to an independent lab the CDC has been using to identify potential variants, and the results came back Wednesday confirming the variant known as B.1.1.7.

“We recognize the concern this case may cause, given that the B.1.1.7 variant appears to spread more easily,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a statement. “Given the number of cases already detected in other states, we expected the variant to arrive in Maine and have been on the lookout for it.”

Maine becomes the 35th state where the variant – first detected in the United Kingdom – has been found. The first known case in the United States was confirmed on Dec. 29 in Colorado and there had been at least 932 cases in 34 states as of Tuesday. Florida, where thousands of largely mask-less people were seen partying in the streets after the Super Bowl on Sunday, has seen the most cases, with nearly 200.

Elsewhere, B.1.1.7 already has become the dominant strain of coronavirus and has led to strict lockdowns in the U.K. and other European countries. The U.S. CDC predicted last month that it could become dominant in the United States by late March.

All viruses mutate and scientists are still studying the B.1.1.7 variant and others, including strains that originated in South Africa and Brazil. Early research suggests that the U.K. variant is more contagious than earlier forms and perhaps more lethal because it binds more easily to receptor cells in the body.


People infected with the variant appear to have higher viral loads, which means they shed more of the virus when coughing or sneezing. Some have recommended double-masking and the U.S. CDC released a study this week that suggests wearing two masks could reduce transmission by as much as 95 percent.

But experts say the two vaccines that have been approved by Pfizer and Moderna appear to protect against the variant.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician from South Portland and an infectious-disease expert, said Wednesday’s news is concerning but Mainers shouldn’t panic.

“It’s obviously something we need to watch carefully, but there are bright spots, too,” she said. “We are vaccinating our most vulnerable individuals and we already know that masks and distancing and washing hands all continue to work against this variant, just like the others.”

Blaisdell said the longer the virus is transmitted, the greater the likelihood it will continue to mutate. That’s why reaching herd immunity is so important. The virus will have nowhere to go.

“Transmission is the laboratory to create more variants,” she said.


Testing for B.1.1.7 and other variants has been ongoing in Maine in collaboration with diagnostic laboratories, including The Jackson Laboratory. Testing consists of conducting genomic sequencing on a portion of positive COVID-19 test samples, and about 820 samples had been tested with the sequencing in Maine by last week.

The CDC said the individual in Franklin County who tested positive for the variant, as well as other members of the person’s household, are isolating. Other close contacts are being asked to quarantine as well.

“It is more important than ever that Maine people remain vigilant in taking the steps that prevent the spread of COVID-19 – wearing face coverings, staying at least 6 feet apart, avoiding gatherings and washing hands frequently,” Shah said.

Health officials fear that the B.1.1.7 variant, and potentially other COVID-19 variants, could reverse progress that has been made in reducing daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths. On Wednesday, Maine’s seven-day daily new case average of 236.3 was less than half what it was this time last month. and there were 112 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19, the lowest total since before Thanksgiving.

Asked if she thought Wednesday’s news would worsen pandemic fatigue for some, Blaisdell said it’s possible.

“I think we are at a real crisis in terms of how we view our personal roles in caring for our community,” she said. “When it comes to infectious disease, it really requires that we all sacrifice in some form, like wearing a mask even if you don’t think it does anything.

“I understand that fatigue, but over and over again, I know my actions affect others. So, this (variant) may be the thing that helps us double down on that belief, because we really are so close.”

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