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'We think it's probably here': How Idaho is looking out for new, more contagious strain of COVID-19

Idaho is now part of a national Strain Surveillance project, meaning IDHW sends some of its positive COVID-19 tests to an out-of-state lab to screen them.

BOISE, Idaho — As a new variant of the coronavirus spreads across the globe after first detected in the United Kingdom earlier this month, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is screening some of its COVID-19 tests for it.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Welfare told KTVB on Wednesday that the state has not yet detected the contagious new strain.

"Nonetheless, we think it's probably here, as it is in some nearby states," Niki Forbing-Orr said.

Idaho is now part of a national Strain Surveillance project, meaning IDHW sends some of its positive COVID-19 tests to an out-of-state lab to screen them for the new variant.

Doctor David Pate, former CEO for St. Luke's and current member of the Idaho Coronavirus Taskforce, said the new variant is more common in younger people, those under the age of 20. 

"It looks like in many respects that it is opposite to what we have been dealing with," Pate said. "The thing that we are concerned about is that it appears to be more contagious, it is going to facilitate transmission."

Pate is confident that the current Moderna and Pfizer vaccines will be able to fight off the new variant. The concern, he said, is children catching the virus and bringing it home to their loved ones. 

"Kids are going to play more of a role in spreading this to families because they are getting it more and it's more contagious, so again not so worried about that 8-year-old, but worried about that 8-year-old's grandma or grandpa," Pate said. 

He questioned if the right thing to do, considering the inevitable arrival of the new strain, is to bring children, teachers and staff back to in-person learning. He said the state's COVID-19 Advisory Committee will be discussing potential implications the new variant will have on schools. 

"What's going on now, because schools have done very well overall, now we are having discussions about, should we bring more kids back?" Pate said. "You do have to ask the question - is that the right thing to do if we are going to have this new strain?"

Forbing-Orr said that the state is working on being able to gene sequence the virus and plan on having it operational sometime this year and that it would "provide additional monitoring for mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 genome in Idaho."