GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – A new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus has been reported in a third Michigan county for the first time.

Health officials say a confirmed case of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant, known as B117, was reported in Kent County on Sunday, Feb. 7.

As of Feb. 5, a total of 28 known cases of the variant have been identified in Michigan over the last month, but the cases have only been reported in Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

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Read: 28 cases of COVID-19 B117 variant confirmed in Washtenaw, Wayne counties, officials say

The new case reported on the opposite side of the state Sunday appears to confirm health officials’ belief that more cases of the virus variant likely exist in Michigan, they just have not been identified yet.

“Fundamentally this is a race for the coverage of our population; a race that pits vaccination efforts against the transmission of infections,” said Dr. Adam London, Director of the Kent County Health Department. “While we work to minimize the impact of COVID-19 infections, the B.1.1.7 variant is giving the virus increased velocity.”

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By nature, a virus — especially a RNA virus like coronavirus — constantly mutates as it infects people, as it makes copies of itself in the process. Occasionally, several individual mutations of the virus can either accumulate or occur at once — giving rise to a new version of the virus that has new characteristics, which is called a variant.

The B117 variant, which was first found in the U.K. at the end of 2020, is of particular concern due to its increased transmissibility: Health experts say that the B117 variant is 50 percent more contagious than the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. today.

Experts warn that the B117 variant will likely become the dominant source of COVID infection in the U.S. by the end of March this year.

Michigan’s first known case of the virus variant was identified on Jan. 16 in a Washtenaw County woman who had just recently traveled to the U.K.

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Since then, all of the variant cases in the state have been found only in the counties of Washtenaw and Wayne. Washtenaw County officials say that all known B117 variant cases within that county are tied to the University of Michigan community.

After the variant outbreak began among the U-M community, all university athletics were placed on pause through Feb. 6, and all university students living on or near the Ann Arbor campus were asked to stay home through Feb. 7 to help curb virus spread.

Related: University of Michigan identifies virus outbreaks at off-campus houses

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Three COVID-19 variants, including the B117 variant, have been identified in the U.S. so far. Only the B117 variant has been discovered in Michigan as of Feb. 7.

Health experts have previously said that existing therapies and vaccines are still effective against the B117 variant, but that is still to be determined. Some preliminary research shows that existing vaccines are effective against the B117 variant — though to a lesser degree — but are less effective against other variants like the B1351 variant, which was found in South Africa.

More: Everything we know about virus variants in Michigan, US

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and more contagious variants, people are encouraged to continue taking precautions including social distancing, mask wearing, practicing good hygiene and avoiding crowds and gatherings.

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