A University of Portland employee is the first Oregonian identified with the new, more contagious strain of coronavirus that engulfed the United Kingdom, university officials announced Saturday.
The employee tested positive this week and has been in quarantine since Monday. Twelve of the employee’s close contacts are also in quarantine; three tested negative and nine others have yet to be tested but will be, Michael Lewellen, the university’s vice president for communications, told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Full details are still emerging but discovery of the more transmissible variant of the virus, known as B.1.1.7, troubled county and state public health officials who first announced the case Friday. Fewer than 100 infections from the strain have been identified in the United States yet federal officials worry it could be the dominant form of the virus by March.
Discovery of the infection in Oregon stems from the testing program at the University of Portland, a private institution in North Portland that typically enrolls about 4,250 students.
The university recorded three positive tests among 565 conducted between Jan. 4 and Jan. 10, Lewellen said. Most tests were among student-athletes and athletics department staff although a small share were not, he said.
“Our robust testing protocols caught this infection early and worked as they should have,” Lewellen said in a statement announcing the link to the university.
It’s not yet clear how the strain was identified. Lewellen said the university learned about it Friday from public health officials in Multnomah County.
While testing identifies active infections, determining the strain of an infection is done through genomic sequencing. It’s unclear how many Oregonians’ tests have been sequenced or what prompts such a review.
Officials for the Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County did not respond to questions Saturday night.
Although there’s no evidence the strain first identified in the United Kingdom causes more severe health problems or is deadlier, it is thought to be more transmissible. That means it could infect more people and, ultimately, kill more Americans.
Vaccines approved for the coronavirus are thought to work just as effectively against the new strain.
The University of Portland employee had no known travel history before testing positive, suggesting the variant is already circulating in the metro area.
Lewellen said the university learned the employee tested positive Monday and confirmed the person had contact with 12 people – no students – prior to that.
State guidance recommends testing anyone who came into close contact of a confirmed or suspected infection. But that guidance is undermined in part because county public health officials are overwhelmed by the volume of cases, halting their practice of attempting to interview everyone with an infection so they can identify and notify close contacts to stay home and get tested.
Lewellen said the university performed its own case investigation and contact tracing, notifying each person about the exposure as of “mid-week” and urging them to get tested and quarantine.
Three subsequently reported negative test results. The other nine have not been tested but Lewellen said the university will help secure screenings for them, if necessary.
The University of Portland is moving forward with plans for about 830 students to move onto campus next week after required testing.
— Brad Schmidt; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-294-7628; @_brad_schmidt