Rhode Island health officials have identified three cases of a more contagious coronavirus variant first found in the United Kingdom. 

The strain is known as the B.1.1.7 variant. And last week, British scientists warned that in addition to being more contagious, the variant “likely” has a higher risk of causing hospitalization and death. 

“No one is surprised that the SARS-CoV-2 variant is here. We knew it was coming. We know it’s here,” said Dr. James McDonald of the state health department. 

McDonald said that 40 other states have already found the U.K. variant. As of Monday, Massachusetts health officials had identified 29 cases, and attributed most of these to spread within the community. 

The variant was identified in three Rhode Island patients - one in their 60s, one in their 50s, and one in their 20s - the health department announced in a statement Tuesday. Two of those people live in Newport County and one lives in Providence County, and investigations into the cases are ongoing. Each of the people had “cleared the isolation period,” McDonald said, meaning that they tested positive at least 10 days ago.  

Rhode Island health officials said the variant was identified through genomic sequencing of viral samples. Dr. Ewa King, head of the state health department laboratories, said the surveillance program is sequencing close to 100 coronavirus samples each week. Health officials said they’re also on the lookout for variants from South Africa and Brazil, which have not yet been found in the state.  

McDonald declined to say how widespread the variant may be in the state. But he encouraged people to wear high quality face masks -- or even double-masking -- to prevent further spread.

“We are not powerless to address this. And right now, the monoclonal antibody treatment we have will work against this,” McDonald said. “The vaccine works against this as well. And we’re doing everything we can to roll out as much vaccine as quickly as possible.”

Lt. Gov. Dan McKee said earlier this week that he’s “not satisfied” with the current pace of vaccination, and said his top priority when he becomes governor will be to speed up vaccination. 

McDonald acknowledged widespread frustration that Rhode Island’s vaccine rollout lags other states. But he defended the health department’s approach, including the decision to put health care workers and first responders at the front of the line. 

“One of the things that Rhode Island has as a benefit right now is, no matter how bad it gets, you have a health care system that’s going to function for you.” McDonald said. He continued, “So, yeah, we made a deliberate, targeted, strategic approach.”

McDonald also said that, between January and February, Rhode Island’s hospitalization admissions dropped more 46%, compared with the national average of 32%.