The Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced Wednesday, Jan. 13, that a variant of COVID-19 believed to be more contagious than the original has been discovered in the state.

The strain, identified as B.1.1.7, was discovered in the United Kingdom in November. Researchers believe the variant spreads faster and more easily than the original strain of coronavirus that led to the pandemic. However, there is no evidence the variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death, a DHS news release said.

All viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19, mutate, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for DHS.

"Mutations among viruses are very common. It’s not unusual — in fact, it’s expected. As time goes on in the pandemic and the virus continues to replicate on a large scale, the genetic sequence of the virus will change,” he said.

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Researchers identified the variant through surveillance and whole genome sequencing, which has been a routine practice since the pandemic began, according to the news release. DHS and its laboratory partners plan to continue the practice to quickly identify new variants.

Because the new variant is considered more infectious than the original, public health officials urge Wisconsinites to continue to wear masks, stay home, maintain social distance and wash their hands frequently.

“We already know that COVID-19 is easily transmitted through respiratory droplets, and with this new variant appearing to be even more infectious, taking preventative measures like wearing a mask and physically distancing are even more important,” said DHS secretary-designee Andrea Palm.

Douglas County distributes COVID-19 vaccine

Two days after the Douglas County Public Health Department received an allotment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, all of the department's appointments were full, according to a news release sent Wednesday.

The agency distributed first doses of the vaccine to dental workers, school nurses, first responders and home health workers. Officials expect to inoculate any remaining health care workers who are eligible for their first doses next week, the news release said.

The first vaccination phase focuses on people who work directly with COVID-19 patients, have potential frequent exposures because of the nature of their work, those at the highest risk of death from the disease and those who live in congregate settings, such as nursing homes.

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Residents and staff at local nursing homes have started to receive vaccines as part of the Federal Pharmacy Program.

DHS officials are still drafting guidance for the next phase of vaccinations and expect to release it in the next few weeks, the news release said.

The vaccine is not expected to be available to the general public for several months.

“The COVID-19 vaccine roll out seems slow due to the limited supply and enormous demand, but a great deal of work is being done," said Kathy Ronchi, public health officer.

Cases in Northwestern Wisconsin

Two residents of Burnett County died from complications related to COVID-19, DHS said Wednesday.

Their deaths bring the total in the county to 23 since the pandemic began. They were among 37 people whose deaths were reported statewide Wednesday, DHS said. The total number of Wisconsinites who have died from COVID-19 is 5,248. Overall, 1% of those who have contracted the virus have died.

An additional 51 Northwestern Wisconsin residents tested positive for the virus Wednesday, DHS said. They were reported as follows: 11 in Taylor County; eight in Rusk County; seven each in Ashland and Price counties; five in Douglas County; four each in Burnett, Sawyer and Washburn counties; and one in Iron County. No new cases were reported in Bayfield County.

The new cases were among 2,134 reported Wednesday, bringing the total statewide to 513,270. The seven-day average of positive cases was 2,646 cases, a figure that has been dropping.

The number of negative tests in the state was 2,414,873, an increase of 5,293 from the previous day.

An additional 122 people were hospitalized because of the virus Wednesday. Across the state, 1,025 people are currently hospitalized because of COVID-19. The total number of people receiving treatment in intensive care units is 224. DHS reported that 83% of the state's available hospital beds are occupied. Overall, 4% of Wisconsinites who contracted the virus have been hospitalized.

Wednesday's report also showed that 94% of the people who have tested positive for the virus have recovered. That means 5%, or 27,749 cases, are currently active.

Here's the breakdown in the 10-county region:

Ashland County

  • Active cases: 54
  • Deaths: 16
  • Probable deaths: 0
  • Total cases: 1,069
  • Total negative tests: 6,184

Bayfield County

  • Active cases: 53
  • Deaths: 18
  • Probable deaths: 0
  • Total cases: 979
  • Total negative tests: 6,021

Burnett County

  • Active cases: 38
  • Deaths: 23
  • Probable deaths: 0
  • Total cases: 1,048
  • Total negative tests: 5,455

Douglas County

  • Active cases: 214
  • Deaths: 17
  • Probable deaths: 13
  • Total cases: 3,298
  • Total negative tests: 16,295

Iron County

  • Active cases: 13
  • Deaths: 19
  • Probable deaths: 17
  • Total cases: 436
  • Total negative tests: 2,276

Price County

  • Active cases: 28
  • Deaths: 6
  • Probable deaths: 0
  • Total cases: 994
  • Total negative tests: 4,933

Rusk County

  • Active cases: 50
  • Deaths: 14
  • Probable deaths: 0
  • Total cases: 1,176
  • Total negative tests: 4,394

Sawyer County

  • Active cases: 37
  • Deaths: 17
  • Probable deaths: 0
  • Total cases: 1,302
  • Total negative tests: 7,382

Taylor County

  • Active cases: 67
  • Deaths: 14
  • Probable deaths: 5
  • Total cases: 1,677
  • Total negative tests: 5,223

Washburn County

  • Active cases: 53
  • Deaths: 15
  • Probable deaths: 2
  • Total cases: 1,116
  • Total negative tests: 5,671

Visit the Douglas County COVID-19 dashboard or Wisconsin Department of Health Services COVID-19 page for updates.