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Jacksonville's Leading Local News: Weather, Traffic, Sports and more | Jacksonville, Florida | FirstCoastNews.com

Most area hospitals not testing for new Coronavirus strains

Florida is tied with California for the most confirmed cases of the U.K. COVID-19 strain, which experts say is more contagious.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The new Coronavirus variant which has overtaken the United Kingdom has likely already widely spread in Florida and other states, although a lack of specific testing for new strains means official counts differ from reality.

Currently, Florida is tied with California for the most confirmed cases of the U.K. COVID-19 variant at 92 cases, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 

Experts agree the strain, known as B.1.1.7., is more contagious, however, studies are still being conducted to determine whether the strain is more deadly. Both Pfizer and Moderna have said the vaccines currently available protect against this new strain and others from South Africa and Brazil.

"We know these variant strains, at least one of them, are already circulating here in the state of Florida. We can expect many more," said Chad Neilsen, Director of Infection Prevention at UF Health Jacksonville.

Neilsen said whole genome sequencing (WGS) is used on positive samples of Coronavirus through specialized lab equipment in order to determine the properties of the sample that would reveal the strain.

"At the research lab, they compare that genetic code to the common strains that have been circulating, and then they know, hey this one strain we have is different than these others," he said.

Because the United Kingdom has a robust national program that sequences every positive COVID-19 sample, Neilsen said the country has a better grasp of how far the new strain has spread there.

"We don't have that kind of a strategy here in the United States," he said.

First Coast News reached out to major hospital systems in Jacksonville, including Baptist Health, St. Vincent's and Mayo Clinic. All three said they are not conducting sequencing to find variant strains.

Neilsen said the sequencing UF Health has done has not yet yielded any local confirmed cases. Ultimately, he said sequencing is expensive, time-consuming and requires equipment and resources most hospital systems do not have, especially with the majority of the focus currently on vaccinations.

"Unless we start genetically sequencing every positive COVID case, we're never really going to know that full burden of the variant. But we can assume it's here," Neilsen said.

Baptist, St. Vincent's and Mayo said they are still conducting regular testing, and that patients all receive the same treatment regardless of their specific strain of Coronavirus.

Neilsen said with the likelihood of widespread of the more contagious U.K. variant, handwashing, mask-wearing and social distancing are critical.

Duval County's local health department did not provide a county-by-county breakdown of confirmed variant cases, and did not confirm whether cases have been found locally.