Florida is the state with the most cases of the new, more contagious COVID-19 variant

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (red), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. (IMAGE POINT FR/NIH/NIAID/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As Florida officials ramped up vaccinations against the coronavirus, concern spread Tuesday over a new, more contagious variant that could be making a foothold in the country’s third-most populous state.

As of Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Florida now has 46 confirmed cases of the more transmissible strain of COVID-19, which was first detected in the United Kingdom in December and has since begun to spread globally.

California had been the U.S. epicenter of the new strain — now with 40 confirmed cases, according to the CDC — but Florida has since eclipsed that.

Early evidence seems to indicate that the new strain is no more lethal than earlier strains that has sickened more than 24 million in the United States and killed nearly 400,000. Florida is now approaching 1.6 million confirmed cases, with some 24,300 having died from the disease.

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"This new strain is more contagious, and that means more people will get infected," said Dr. Frederick Southwick, a professor of medicine and a specialist in infectious diseases at the University of Florida. "If we had a problem, we’re going to have more of a problem now."

The first known case in Florida of the new variant was disclosed by health officials on New Year’s Eve, when officials identified a Martin County man with no known history of travel as the state’s first case of the variant.

During a news conference in Palm Beach County on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he wanted more Floridians vaccinated but said the state was at the mercy of the federal government because of limited vaccine supplies.

So far, some 700,000 senior citizens have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the governor said. DeSantis has prioritized seniors 65 years or older for vaccinations.

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"We’re ready to accept more vaccine," the governor said while announcing an expanded vaccination partnership with the state’s largest grocery chain.

Publix is using 181 of its pharmacies across 15 counties to administer as many as 125 shots per day. At his news conference, the governor said 67 of the grocer’s stores in Palm Beach County — the largest of Florida’s 67 counties to take part in the program — would begin offering vaccinations by appointment. A fourth of the county’s residents are 65 or older.

Communities across the country are racing against the rise in new infections as they await more doses of two vaccines that have been approved for use against the coronavirus.

"The game plan is what it has been before: Vaccinate as many people as possible, as rapidly as possible, try to really stomp on this virus and drop the overall number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths," said Dr. Glenn Morris, the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida.

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The number of hospitalizations in Florida appeared to be leveling off in recent days, with 7,367 people in Florida being treated for COVID-19.

"As a scientist, I’m concerned that we monitor the inevitable evolution within these strains," said Morris, who echoed concerns among researchers that not enough resources have been invested in identifying the strains that have invaded communities across the country.

"At this point, we don’t have enough data to get to the point where we need to be alarmed," Morris said, adding that it was too early tell how widely the new strains will spread in Florida and other states.

The concern is that more transmissible strains will sicken even more people, putting further pressure on hospitals and resulting in more deaths.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.