Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Health officials in South Carolina announced Thursday that they have identified two cases of a COVID-19 variant that emerged recently in South Africa -- which are the first confirmed cases of the mutated virus in the United States.
Federal officials identified the B.1.351 variant in adults from the state's Lowcountry and Pee Dee regions, according to South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The patients have not traveled internationally and did not know each other, the department said.
"The arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 variant in our state is an important reminder to all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over," interim DHEC Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said in a statement.
"While more COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together."
New variants first reported in Britain and South Africa are said to be more transmissible, but most experts have said the available vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna should also be effective against the mutated strains.
"At this time, there's no evidence to suggest that the B.1.351 variant causes more severe illness," the department added.
According to updated data from Johns Hopkins University on Thursday, there were about 152,500 new cases nationwide on Wednesday and almost 4,000 deaths. The day before saw almost 147,000 cases and 4,100 dead.
The national case count continued a trend below the average for this month, with cases on a decline from the record highs set in December and early January.
COVID-19 deaths in the United States, however, show few signs of waning, according to the Johns Hopkins data.
Since the start of the pandemic a year ago, there have been a total of 25.6 million cases and about 429,300 related deaths in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials have inoculated about 24.7 million people in the United States to date, and have distributed about 47.3 million doses of vaccine.
The Biden administration has said it plans to ramp up vaccinations nationwide and administer 100 million vaccines over its first 100 days -- and more than 500 million doses by this summer.
In New York, a report by Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday showed that the state health department may have under-reported the number of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes by as much as 50%.
James said her office will follow up investigations into 20 of New York's 600 nursing homes, about two thirds of which are run by for-profit companies.
"This report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves and to spur increased action to protect our most vulnerable residents," James said in a statement.
"Nursing homes residents and workers deserve to live and work in safe environments, and I will continue to work hard to safeguard this basic right during this precarious time."
The report also found that some nursing homes put patients and staff at unnecessary risk by not complying with infection control procedures, and that under-staffing was linked to more COVID-19 deaths.
Shortages in testing and protective equipment also increased risk in the first months of the pandemic, it said.
The report was compiled from investigations of almost 200 complaints to James' office.
Other COVID-19 news Thursday:
- San Francisco is allowing outdoor dining and certain businesses to reopen on Thursday after key metrics like ICU capacity and case rates improved in the city.
- The White House COVID-19 Response Team approved vaccines for retired doctors and nurses.
- The pandemic has significantly slowed cancer research in the United States, according to a new study.
- The World Health Organization team investigating the pandemic's origins in China is out of quarantine, officials said Thursday.