RENO — Nevada health officials have confirmed the state's first known case of a coronavirus variant that was originally identified in South Africa.
The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory said Thursday the mutated version of the virus was confirmed a day earlier in a sample traced to a person who traveled from South Africa and began showing symptoms of COVID-19 when arriving in Reno.
Experts say it's another reason Nevadans need to be sure to keep their masks on and not to let their guard down as the state relaxes restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the South African variant has been detected in 10 states thus far, not including Nevada's case.
Dr. Mark Pandori, the director of Nevada's public health lab, said Thursday vaccines may be less effective on the new strain but it is not yet known if the strain causes a more severe illness. He said the new strain is not believed to be more lethal than the original COVID-19 strain.
Nevada has also reported six known cases of a more contagious coronavirus variant that first originated in the United Kingdom.
Pandori told reporters the UK variant has shown "an ability to spread readily." He said data on the South African variant "shows it can do another trick, so to speak — to some degree avoid immunity, not completely."
Nevada began lifting restrictions on business capacity and private gatherings on Monday and plans to gradually increase the number of people allowed in venues like churches, restaurants, gyms and casinos until May 1, when it will cede a majority of decision-making power to local government officials.
Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick said COVID-19 cases in the Reno-Sparks area have been in a downward trend roughly since the end of November. But he's concerned that numbers could start to rise again with the easing of restrictions.
"It's important that we learn from past experience," Dick said. "As we've seen relaxations occur in the mitigation measures that have been put in place, people take that as a positive sign and they think everything is getting better and they relax their practices with the masking and social distancing."
"We need to make sure we are unified in our approach in wearing masks and social distancing and continuing those practices so that we can be successful in opening up our economy a little bit more instead of hurting ourselves when we do that," he said.
Dick said on Wednesday he'd heard reports that some businesses "are under the impression that masks are optional now."
"That is not the case. The masks are still mandatory under the governor's directive," he said, adding that those will remain in place beyond May 1 when the state begins reverting some of the decision-making back to local governments.
"The potential that we could have additional surges and additional hospitalizes and deaths is a very real reality for us and we need to be careful," he said.
Pandori agreed. He said the UK and South African variants both are the product of COVID-19 "evolving by replicating and jumping from person to person over time."
"As long as that process continues to happen, even at a very low level of the population, it's giving the virus an opportunity to learn these so-called tricks," Pandori said Thursday. He said it's "a whole `nother reason to do everything we can to keep this virus down."
"Because if we allow variants to come out and then those variants to variate or change on themselves, we are going to potentially be in a situation where we are facing a whole new foe, and we don't want to be in that situation."
AP reporter Michelle L. Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report