FRANKFORT, Ky. — With a more contagious variant of coronavirus, first identified in the United Kingdom and now confirmed in two Northern Kentucky cases, Kentucky's health commissioner said "it is more important than ever" to mask up and keep social distancing.
“It’s not more dangerous for the person who gets it than the previous version of the virus, but since more people can get it more quickly and more easily, that means you could have more people get sick, more people who die,” said Kentucky's Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack.
Local infectious disease experts told WCPO earlier this month that the new strain, known as the B.1.1.7 lineage, spreads quickly because it binds more tightly to receptors and can multiply more rapidly once in cells. Current COVID-19 vaccines have still proven effective against the strain so far, they said.
Stack said that because the new virus strain is now in Kentucky, it is critical that Kentuckians wear masks around others, keep social distancing, wash their hands and quarantine if exposed to a COVID-19 case, feel sick or test positive for the virus.
"The more we let the virus spread, the more the virus has a chance to replicate, the more mutations occur, the more risk we have of more harm and danger,” Stack said.
Health experts previously told WCPO it's possible the variant has been in the U.S. for longer than reported. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, B.1.1.7 lineage cases have already appeared in at least 24 other states, including Indiana and Tennessee.
The variant was discovered in two Kenton County cases with the help of Covington's Gravity Diagnostics, and the B.1.1.7 variant was confirmed after a state lab conducted genetic sequencing.
Gov. Andy Beshear said both individuals have not been hospitalized and are "doing OK," adding that officials are assuming the new strain has spread "beyond those two individuals."
Ky. still facing vaccine supply shortage
Beshear, who lauded the White House's pledge Tuesday to boost states' weekly COVID-19 vaccine supply by 17%, said Kentucky still has an urgent need for more doses.
“Our one issue is supply. If we had three issues, they would be supply, supply, supply,” he said Wednesday.
The governor has previously called on the federal government to double Kentucky's weekly vaccine allotment as the state administers vaccines faster than the government is supplying them.
Kentucky expects to release more details Thursday on the future rollout of vaccine phase 1C, during which an estimated 1 million people would become eligible to receive vaccines.
"Again, we need a lot more than this, but this is the first increase. It's happened pretty quickly, and what I hope is that the president and his team feels the urgency of increasing supply -- and I think they do," Beshear said.
More than 338,500 Kentuckians have received COVID-19 vaccine doses since December, and first doses have been administered to the residents and staff at all Kentucky assisted living facilities.
COVID-19 in Kentucky
Beshear reported 2,424 new cases of COVID-19, the lowest Wednesday in four weeks. Kentucky also recorded 47 virus-related deaths, including an 84-year-old woman from Campbell County and two men, ages 66 and 91, from Kenton County.
Since March, 352,943 Kentuckians have tested positive for COVID-19 and 3,542 have died of the virus. The state's test positivity rate fell again to 9.35%.
“In our country and in our commonwealth, the trends are getting better. They are currently going in the right direction,” Beshear said of decreasing new cases, lower positivity rate and fewer hospitalizations in intensive care units.
On Wednesday, 1,597 Kentuckians are currently hospitalized for COVID-19, with 387 people in intensive care units and 225 on ventilators. Kentucky's coronavirus fatality rate now sits at 0.99%; according to Johns Hopkins, the U.S. has a COVID-19 mortality rate of 1.7%.
Using the state's contact tracing database, NKY Health reports 4,261 active coronavirus cases in Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties, and 27,903 people have recovered from the virus as of Wednesday. Since the pandemic began, 203 Northern Kentuckians have died from the virus.
Watch a replay of Wednesday's briefing in the player below: