LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County on Saturday surpassed 1 million coronavirus cases since reporting its first infection nearly a year before and also recorded its first instance of a new, more contagious variant of the virus that was initially identified in the United Kingdom.
The variant, B.1.1.7, had previously been found in California’s San Diego and San Bernardino counties, as well as 14 other U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is not believed to make people sicker or increase their risk of death but appears to spread more easily, raising fears it could hamper efforts to bring the pandemic under control if it displaces other strains and becomes dominant in the region.
Officials believe the variant has been present in L.A. County for some time and is already spreading in the community. The person found to have contracted it is a man who recently spent time in L.A. County but has since traveled to Oregon, where he is currently isolated, officials said. Quest Laboratories in Washington confirmed the discovery, officials said.
“The presence of the U.K. variant in Los Angeles County is troubling, as our health care system is already severely strained with more than 7,500 people currently hospitalized,” Barbara Ferrer, the county public health director, said in a statement.
L.A. County recorded 13,291 new cases of the virus and 237 related deaths Saturday, according to the Los Angeles Times’ tally, bringing its total to 1,003,923 cases and 13,741 deaths.
“Our community is bearing the brunt of the winter surge, experiencing huge numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, five times what we experienced over the summer,” Ferrer said. “This more contagious variant makes it easier for infections to spread at worksites, at stores, and in our homes.”
The discovery added even more urgency to officials’ race to vaccinate as many people as possible before the variant took hold. The process has been complicated by California’s decentralized public health system in which local public health departments, already tasked with the immense amount of work associated with testing and contact tracing, are also responsible for prioritizing and distributing the vaccine.
There have also been reports of vaccine shortages at the federal level.
Although Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced the state was expanding vaccine eligibility to include all those 65 and older, L.A. County is still working through vaccinating all of its eligible health care workers — those who have had direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials. (Health care workers who don’t have routine in-person patient contact will be vaccinated during a later phase, officials have said.)
The county public health department on Saturday issued a broad call for licensed health care workers — including medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, licensed vocational nurses, dentists and pharmacists — to volunteer to vaccinate other health care workers during unpaid, 10-hour shifts at five “mega” distribution sites.