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What the detection of B.1.1.7 in Dane County means for campus

February 19, 2021 By Chris Barncard

On Thursday, February 18, Public Health Madison and Dane County announced that a case of COVID-19 caused by a variant of the virus called B.1.1.7 was identified for the first time in Dane County. It was detected by a University of Wisconsin–Madison laboratory.

The variant, which experts believe to be more contagious, was discovered in December in the United Kingdom after circulating there since September. It is one of a handful of known versions of the virus notable for mutations that may allow them to spread more rapidly and easily from person to person. B.1.1.7 had already been found elsewhere in Wisconsin, and at least 42 states have confirmed infections involving variants of concern, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is no evidence at this time that the B.1.1.7 variant causes more severe disease, though a report out of the U.K. suggests it may increase the risk of death from COVID-19. More studies are underway. The CDC notes more transmissible versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can place more strain on health systems due to increased hospitalizations.

There is no evidence at this time that the current vaccines authorized for use against COVID-19 are any less effective against the B.1.1.7 variant.

However, a more contagious version of the virus calls for greater vigilance from people to protect themselves and others during the pandemic by continuing to practice measures such as limiting social gatherings, wearing well-fitting face coverings, and physical distancing.

The best way to prevent the spread of variants like B.1.1.7 is for everyone to put maximum effort toward following public health guidelines:

  • Limit in-person gatherings.
  • Keep at least 6 feet of distance from other people.
  • Always wear a well-fitting face covering with at least two layers when you’re around people from outside your household and when on campus. For more on current campus face covering policies, visit: The CDC also offers a guide to choosing face coverings:
  • Wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Diligently follow isolation and quarantine guidance in the event of infection or exposure.
  • Test regularly in accordance with expanded spring semester testing protocols.
  • Watch for symptoms (fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue and more) and report them to healthcare professionals if they arise.
  • Get vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you, and encourage others to do the same.

UW–Madison has worked closely with federal, state and local public health agencies to watch and prepare for the arrival of these variants, and state and university laboratories continue to conduct surveillance and genomic sequencing for these particular virus types. The labs are able to sequence a subset of positive cases in the state; about 5 percent of samples in Dane County are being sequenced.

The contact tracing process has been enhanced to catch potential variant cases. Positive test samples from people who have traveled internationally or who have been in close contact with international travelers are passed to laboratories equipped to sequence the viral DNA and identify the particular version of the virus involved. Viruses are constantly mutating, and UW–Madison labs have identified hundreds of variations of SARS-CoV-2 among Wisconsin cases — though the vast majority have not caused experts additional concern.

“We’ve been expecting to find B.1.1.7 in Dane County, as it has appeared elsewhere in the state over the past month,” said Public Health Madison and Dane County director Janel Heinrich, in the PHMDC announcement. “While this is the first time sequencing has confirmed the strain here, we’ve been operating under the assumption that the variant is present, and that is why we continue to stress that people not let their guard down.”

Watch for messages from campus and visit the university’s COVID-19 Response website ( for the latest information on UW–Madison’s pandemic response. The CDC has more information on virus variants.

Tags: covid-19