• The Star Staff

Gov’t confirms island’s first UK coronavirus variant case

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and island Health Secretary-designate Carlos Mellado López confirmed Tuesday that a woman who arrived in Puerto Rico on a stopover flight from Europe was detected with the UK coronavirus variant B.1.1.7.

The revelation came after scientists from the Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU) had detected suspicious coronavirus cases with the variant in three positive COVID-19 tests.

During a press conference held after an executive meeting, Pierluisi said “no one has been identified as having been infected with the new strain other than that particular individual.”

Mellado López said the woman, who is Puerto Rican but resides in Europe, “is around 50 years old and had no major complications.”

“This [case] was identified by Labcorps and they sent the results to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] so they could begin sequencing,” the Health secretary-designate said. “There was no significant increase of cases around her; however, people who were in contact with her were tested and we are sending the results to the CDC to sequence and find if they carry the variant or not.”

Mellado López added that the patient is in the island’s main metropolitan area, remains hospitalized, yet has shown improvement “significantly.”

“She was in the intensive care unit but is now out and has responded well to treatment,” Mellado López said, adding that the patient received Remdesivir, which is a broad-spectrum antiviral medication used to treat COVID-19 symptoms.

When asked by the press, Mellado López said the woman did not present a negative coronavirus test as the Federal Aviation Administration had not made it mandatory by the time she arrived in Puerto Rico.

“Here, in the Zika branch laboratory, which is a laboratory that we have here [at the Health Department] funded by the CDC, our personnel are being trained to conduct [the coronavirus] sequencing,” he said, adding that the other two cases were being evaluated and results were expected as early as next week.

Mellado López also said the process of monitoring and tracking cases will continue to identify, through the epidemiology personnel working at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the passengers who traveled with the patient. For security reasons, he did not reveal the flight she arrived on.

“But I want to clarify something: this happened in mid-January and there has not been a pattern that calls our attention or that we can say that there is something that needs to be watched more closely. … On the contrary, positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have been decreasing,” the Health chief said. “I repeat, so far there has not been a significant increase in the number of cases that would attract attention and the other passengers are being investigated. … I cannot say that this is the only case because there may be more cases, but there has not been a pattern of increase and hospitalizations for this variant which, although it is not more lethal, is more virulent and spreads faster.”

When asked about what security measures the Health Department was going to enforce to prevent the coronavirus variant from becoming the dominant one in future positive COVID cases, as such enforcement is anticipated in the mainland United States, Mellado López said the Health Department would continue conducting coronavirus tests and enforcing the agency’s contract tracing system.

“Our [contract tracing] system is very robust and we will keep improving it,” he said.

On Jan. 28, the STAR reported that scientists from INNO Diagnostics and Research Centers in Minority Institutions of Ponce Research Institute, a scientific research center of PHSU, detected the UK B.1.1.7 variant in three positive COVID-19 tests conducted on the island.

Regarding the coronavirus vaccination appointment system being touted by the Health Department, as reported by the STAR last Thursday, Mellado López said the “appointment system is not happening” as the department is meeting with the Medicare Advantage and Platinum Association and gathering data from earlier efforts to call candidates to reserve a turn for inoculation, which adds up to 32,000 people.