North Texas health experts believe COVID-19 U.K. variant is more widespread than documented

Local public health officials and medical experts believe the new, more contagious COVID-19 variant initially found in the United Kingdom is more widespread than is documented.

There are at least four confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in Dallas County and one in Denton County. But doctors agree these variants have likely been spreading in the region for some time and there are more cases out there.

"I think we need to be concerned, it needs to make us pay attention to continuing all the safety measures we know work," said Dr. Beth Kassanoff-Piper, president, Dallas County Medical Society.

The B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant spread quickly in the U.K. and Europe in a matter of weeks and it’s likely already doing the same in the U.S.

"The CDC predicts especially the U.K. variant will become the predominant strain by March and we are expecting to see another big spike in the next probably 6-12 weeks related to these variants.

Dallas County reported its first of four confirmed cases of the variant last month. Denton County has just one reported case of the more-contagious strain.

But local public health officials believe the variant has been in North Texas earlier than reported and Denton County’s public health director believes there are more cases.

"This was not travel-related, meaning this is what we call local transmission, meaning they got it from another variant-infected person in Denton County. So that’s where we are in this pandemic conversation, is that variants are circulating, and they are circulating in Denton County," said Dr. Matt Richardson, Denton County Public Health Director.

Though North Texas hospitalizations are still projected to decline over the next two weeks, researchers at UT-Southwestern say if these new variants become more dominant they could change long-term trends for the region.

"The simple truth is that we believe different variants are present in Denton County. We happened upon this confirmation from an outside laboratory. They sent us this information. Some laboratories are doing random genomic sequencing, so they will look for different variants sporadically," Richardson said.

There are several more mutations circulating that has health officials concerned, including a South African strain detected in the U.S. that may be vaccine resistant.

And there’s growing concern that people can be re-infected.

"There’s some new information that just came out that shows people who were known to have had it, had positive tests before, had antibodies before still could get infected with the South African variant," Kassanoff-Piper said.

"I think the take home message for the discussion of variants is masks are still important, physical distancing still important, being tested when you’re sick, still important," Richardson said.

Studies are ongoing to see if booster shots of the current vaccines available may help against the new variants. Health experts hope to learn more information on the variants in the coming months.