FARGO — Sanford’s infectious disease director advises people to assume that the more contagious variant of the coronavirus — recently detected in the Twin Cities — is already circulating in North Dakota.

The more contagious variant of the virus, first discovered in England, is known to be spreading in at least nine U.S. states. Minnesota health officials announced on Saturday, Jan. 9, that the variant had been found in five residents of four Twin Cities metro counties.

“We would be wise to presume that the new variant is already here,” said Dr. Avish Nagpal, director of infectious diseases for Sanford Health.

Clinical laboratories don’t have the capability of detecting the genetic variant of the virus, but larger labs such as those for state health departments and Mayo Clinic do, he said.

Because of the time it takes to perform the sophisticated testing, by the time it can be confirmed and notifications are issued, the virus already is spreading, Nagpal said.

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“It is wise to assume that it already is circulating widely,” he said. The new variant, which researchers in London have estimated can spread 56% more rapidly, could explain why the pandemic is spiking around much of the country, Nagpal said.

“We should be prepared for it,” he said.

“Our lab is monitoring for the new variant but hasn’t identified it in North Dakota at this time,” Nicole Peske, communications director for the North Dakota Department of Health said Monday, Jan. 11. “Our recommendations don’t change a lot from the current strain. Our goal is to encourage people to get tested so we can identify, trace and isolate positive individuals as early as possible."

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The new variant does not cause a more serious case of COVID-19 — and anecdotal cases suggest it could result in milder disease — and experts say the vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. will protect against it.

Anecdotally, there are some indications the new variant might result in milder cases, Fleming said.

Still, a more rapidly contagious virus is a cause of concern among public health officials and health providers.

North Dakota has seen new cases of COVID-19 fall since peaking in mid-November, and did not see a rise after Thanksgiving. But Nagpal said the full impact of gatherings over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays isn’t yet apparent.

“I expect the caseload to start increasing again as we see the true effect of holiday travel,” he said. He worries that people might have relaxed their guard when gathering with relatives and friends.

It takes four to six weeks for the “chain of transmission” to fully play out, meaning the consequences won’t be apparent until late January or early February, Nagpal said.

Desi Fleming, director of Fargo Cass Public Health, agrees that the new variant of the coronavirus already could be circulating in the area.

With that in mind, she said, people should continue taking the recommended precautions, including wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings — and, once the vaccine is available, get vaccinated to help control the spread.

“There isn’t anything different that we would do,” Fleming said, adding that North Dakota's statewide mask mandate should remain in place.