Coronavirus file photo stock of nurse

A nurse wears protective gear in a ward for people infected with the new coronavirus at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Mohammad Ghadamali)

A new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus has been found in Louisiana, state health officials said Saturday.

State leaders and health experts warn that could make an already-troubling surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths even worse. They say it's even more important now for people to limit their exposure to others and take other precautions.

SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7., which is often referred to as the "U.K. variant" because of its prevalence in the United Kingdom, spreads more easily than other viral strains in the country, health experts said.

The Louisiana Department of Health said the new variant had been found in the Greater New Orleans area. The department conducted an investigation to identify those in close contact with the infected person, who reportedly has a history of travel outside of the state.

The variant strain, which officials say is likely circulating more broadly in Louisiana, has been detected in at least 15 other states.

"It is urgent that everyone double down on the mitigation measures that we know are effective in reducing the spread of the virus," Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement. "There is no such thing as taking this too seriously." 

LDH has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance Program in preparation for this variant strain, sending bi-weekly samples for sequencing since November 2020. 

A spokesperson for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the administration is staying in close contact with federal and state health officials to monitor developments.

"The confirmation comes as we were starting to see a gradual decrease in COVID-19 cases over the past week, which made us cautiously optimistic that we were starting to flatten the curve once again," the statement said. 

The U.K. variant has not been shown to cause more severe disease, officials said. Health experts believe that current COVID-19 vaccines are effective against this strain. 

However, this not a reason for people to let down their guard when it comes to safety precautions, according to Dr. Catherine O'Neal, chief medical officer for Our Lady of the Lake and infectious disease physician.

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In England, O'Neal said people following normal mitigation efforts — such as distancing at a coffee shop or wearing masks in a group meeting — proved ineffective with this strain of the virus. With the new variant, even small gatherings with one or two people outside of your household could be dangerous. 

"The things we thought were safe may not be safe anymore because this virus is more transmissible," O'Neal said. "That is why just doubling down on what we’ve been hearing for this last year may not be enough."

O'Neal encouraged people to stick strictly to their close personal "bubble" to avoid transmission, even if they have managed to remain virus-free for months using less-stringent mitigation measures. That false sense of security is dangerous, she said.   

"Before we let this thing get too far out of the bag, our best bet is to stop it in its tracks while it’s still fairly early...and really do a great job staying away from each other," O'Neal said. "Everybody has to participate in doing it."

Cases have risen throughout the winter months and following major holidays, but now experts fear the rapid spread will be exacerbated even further by this more contagious strain.

Dr. Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, associate professor of epidemiology at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans, underscored the importance of getting the new vaccine if possible. In the meantime, she said Louisiana residents should temper their expectations for upcoming celebrations like Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day. 

"I know everyone is tired," Straif-Bourgeois said. "I’m really concerned that people will say, 'Okay, it’s over, we’re in 2021!' But it’s not over yet. As soon as you go outside, you have to be prepared that you might get exposed."

If the U.K. variant is mixed with the holiday-related cases from the tail end of 2020, the state "will likely see a boom in cases," O'Neal said. And Straif-Bourgeois added that the trickledown effect of these cases will mean more hospitalizations and more deaths.

"At this rate of transmission as a state, the added gasoline on a fire of a hyper-transmissibility of a new strain will give us an outlook that is very bad for the next couple of months," O'Neal said. 

The CDC said Friday that the U.K. variant could become the predominant strain in the U.S. by March. Health experts continue to advise people to wash their hands, wear masks, social distance, isolate and quarantine to prevent the spread of this more contagious variant. 

"We are not out of the woods yet," Straif-Bourgeois said. "We think the number of cases is going up because we are in the winter season...and now we have this more infectious strain. Don’t let your guard down."

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