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University of Portland prepares for students after staffer tests positive for new variant of COVID-19

The "UK variant" spreads more easily and quickly than other coronavirus variants, but there is no evidence that it's more harmful, according to the CDC.

PORTLAND, Ore — Health officials said a person in Oregon had tested positive for the COVID-19 variant first detected in the United Kingdom, marking the state's first known case of the new variant on Friday.

On Saturday, Jan. 16, the University of Portland (UP) said in a press release that the person is an on-campus staff member. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) said this person has no known travel history, and it's investigating possible sources of infection.

“The detection of the first case of this variant strain is a concern, and we have been monitoring movement of this strain,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, health officer and state epidemiologist at OHA. 

The variant, called B.1.1.7, spreads more easily and quickly than other variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. However, there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness, increased risk of death or affect vaccine effectiveness, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

People within the UP community who've come in close contact with the infected staff member have been in quarantine since Monday, the university said. 

No one in quarantine, including the infected staff member, has developed any symptoms associated with COVID-19. No UP students are in quarantine connected to this case.

“Our robust testing protocols caught this infection early and worked as they should have," said Michael Lewellen, University of Portland vice president for marketing and communications. "Our resources came together quickly to identify, isolate and care for this member of our UP community, and to address the possibility of further spread."

Lewellen said the UP is confident in its COVID-19 planning and management strategies. The university is proceeding with plans to opening for the spring 2021 semester with limited students in residence halls and a hybrid of online and select in-person classes.

Health officials said Multnomah County public health staff members would be working through the weekend to go over details with the infected individual related to their isolation plan, contacts and any possible exposures. 

“Confirming this strain locally is distressing,” said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. “Until we have enough vaccine, we must continue using face masks, distancing and limiting our social interactions.”

The news of Oregon's first case comes the same day the CDC published a report suggesting the U.K. variant could become the predominant variant in the world by this March. It has already been detected in more than 30 countries.

OHA says viruses constantly mutate, and multiple coronavirus variants have been documented during the pandemic. Most variants do not change how the virus behaves, and many disappear. 

Scientists are working to learn more about how easily the variants might spread.

A hybrid in-person and distance learning model of learning for UP will begin on Jan. 25. Approximately 830 undergraduates will begin moving in next week. For more information and to track all COVID-19 reporting at UP you can visit its website.

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