- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 13, 2021

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A more contagious variant of the coronavirus has been detected in New Mexico, health officials confirmed Wednesday.

The New Mexico Health Department said the first known case involves a man in his 60s who traveled in December to the United Kingdom, where the variant has taken a toll. His illness was described as mild, and officials said he did not require hospitalization.

Health officials said in a statement that so far, they have not identified any close contacts by the man within the state. They also said there’s no evidence the variant affects the severity of COVID-19 cases or the effectiveness of vaccines.

The variant has spread to multiple countries and several U.S. states since first emerging in September. British officials said Wednesday that they are accelerating efforts to vaccinate millions of vulnerable people as the variant sweeps across the country and drives hospitals to their breaking point.

In New Mexico, hospitalizations related to the virus have decreased. Medical officials with some of the state’s largest health care providers reported in a briefing Monday that hospitals are still busy but mostly with non-COVID-19 cases.

Health officials reported that a dozen of New Mexico’s 33 counties have seen improvements in the rate of spread and positive tests over the last two weeks, while 16 counties worsened in both metrics.

Only Harding and Union counties are able to relax some public health requirements. The rest - including the most populous counties - remain in the highest risk category.

The state’s color-coded system allows counties to loosen restrictions as they move from red to yellow and ultimately green. Officials have touted it as a way to provide communities the flexibility to allow more daily activities as public health data shows the virus is retreating within their borders.

The total number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in New Mexico is approaching 160,000. More than 2,800 deaths have been linked to the virus.

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