Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Nineteen cases of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant originating from Europe have been identified in metro Atlanta, state public-health officials confirmed on Monday.

Early studies suggest the COVID-19 variant is “significantly more contagious” than the original coronavirus strain that sparked a global pandemic last March, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). Georgia is among 30 states reporting cases of the variant so far.

The 19 variant cases in Georgia have been reported in several metro-Atlanta counties including Fulton, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Cobb, Clayton, Cherokee, Carroll, Douglas and Paulding. It has infected Georgians from ages 15 to 61, DPH said in a news release.

“We must ensure we are taking every precaution right now to prevent transmission of COVID and to avoid a surge in hospitalizations and loss of life,” said state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

Toomey added the COVID-19 variant now spreading in Georgia will likely become the “dominant strain” of coronavirus in the U.S. by March after originating in the United Kingdom.

DPH officials are warning Georgians to follow COVID-19 safety measures even more strictly since laboratories have only tested a small number of samples for the variant so far, giving public-health experts a limited view of where the variant might be spreading.

Public-health officials are urging Georgians to wear masks, wash hands and social distance to help curb the highly contagious virus’ spread at a time when COVID-19 positive case rates and deaths have started trending down after grueling winter outbreaks.

The variant’s discovery in Georgia also comes as state officials, hospitals and pharmacies rush to distribute tight supplies of COVID-19 vaccines to health-care workers, nursing-home residents and staff, first responders and people ages 65 and older.

Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna have stressed that their COVID-19 vaccines “appear to work” against the variant, according to DPH.

Nearly 750,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Sunday afternoon, with nearly 160,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 12,570 Georgians.