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First case of more contagious strain of COVID-19 found in Illinois

The person who tested positive for the new strain had traveled to the UK and the Middle East in the two weeks prior to testing positive, officials said.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said the discovery of a coronavirus variant in Illinois will not change the city’s guidance on staying safe.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

A new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus has made its way to Illinois.

The Chicago and state health departments announced Friday that researchers had found the first Illinois case of the strain initially identified in the United Kingdom. Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine identified the case “through sequencing analysis of a specimen from bio-banked samples” of positive tests for COVID-19.

The person who tested positive for the new strain had traveled to the UK and the Middle East in the two weeks prior to testing positive, according to a contact tracing investigation by the city. People who were in close contact with the traveler have been identified and urged to self-quarantine.

The new strain was first identified in the United States about two weeks ago in Colorado and has since been identified in several other states. It showed up in the UK in September.

Medical experts say the new strain can spread more quickly, but there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death. Nor is it more resistant to coronavirus vaccines.

“This news isn’t surprising and doesn’t change our guidance around COVID-19. We must double-down on the recommended safety strategies we know help stop the spread of this virus,” Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a news release.

“In order to protect Chicago, please continue to wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands often, do not have outside guests in your home, and get vaccinated when it is your turn.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said experts are also monitoring unique strains identified in several other nations, including Japan and Brazil.

Effective Jan. 26, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control will require all international passengers arriving in the United States to show proof of having tested negative for the coronavirus no more than three days prior to flying here.

“If we do not continue to wear our masks, watch our distance and avoid gatherings, this new variant could sweep across the state as it swept across the UK, and that would lead us back to a place that we don’t want to go,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

Identification of the variant came as the state reported 6,642 new cases of COVID-19 and the latest 123 deaths attributed to it.

The infections were diagnosed among 107,156 tests, lowering the statewide average testing positivity rate to 6.5% — its lowest point since Oct. 27.

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Hospital admissions have decreased about 40% from the peak of the state’s record-breaking fall resurgence. As of Thursday night, 3,446 hospital beds were occupied by coronavirus patients, with 712 receiving intensive care and 386 on ventilators.

But the figures marked the most daily deaths announced by the state in a week, with the state averaging about 94 deaths per day over that period.

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The latest victims included a Cook County man in his 30s and 70 other Chicago-area residents.

The state’s pandemic death toll rose to 18,049, just nine days after the state passed 17,000 deaths. The virus has already claimed almost 1,600 lives in Illinois this year.

More than 1 million Illinoisans have been infected since March.