Variants remain a potential threat
By Marcy Stamper
The number of new COVID cases in Okanogan County in the past week is the lowest since early November, with just 12 cases reported in the week ending March 14. The county reported no additional deaths from the disease.
Public health officials are hailing the decreasing virus transmission across the state, but they remain concerned about the potential for a resurgence of COVID.
While cases plateaued in eastern Washington in late February, they increased slightly in western Washington and remain relatively high across the state, according to the state Department of Health (DOH).
Overall case counts are “around the same level we were seeing last October when the third wave of disease activity was ramping up. Plateauing or increasing at these high levels is concerning. We want to see these numbers continue to decline,” DOH said in last week’s report on the virus.
Current models indicate that each individual with COVID is likely to infect just under one other person. While encouraging, the number needs to drop further — and stay lower — for a prolonged decline in transmission.
Moreover, cases are increasing among people aged 20 to 39. Case counts in other age groups have flattened after a period of decline, DOH said. Health officials anticipate a more rapid drop as more people get vaccinated.
“There is a pattern of several waves of COVID-19 activity followed by a return to baseline level. The baseline we reached after our second wave in summer 2020 was higher than the level after our first wave. Now, following the third wave that began last fall, cases have flattened out at higher baseline level than ever before,” Acting State Health Officer Scott Lindquist said. “I’m concerned about what this means for the future and a possibility of a fourth wave of activity, along with the increases we are seeing in variants of the virus.”
Variants of concern
Since January, Washington has recorded cases of three COVID variants, which are growing increasingly prevalent in this country. While viruses mutate all the time and most variants aren’t a problem, these three have been termed “variants of concern.”
As of March 10, the state had identified 99 cases of the variant first detected in the United Kingdom, five of the variant first detected in South Africa, and one of the variant first detected in Brazil, according to DOH.
The variants have been identified in individuals from counties in western and south-central Washington. Because the state doesn’t do genomic sequencing of all COVID tests to ascertain the virus variant, it isn’t known how widely these mutations are spreading, DOH said.
“Because viruses mutate when they are transmitted from one person to another, the best way to combat mutations is to stop transmissions,” DOH said.
The U.K. variant appears to be more contagious, but it isn’t clear if it causes more serious illness. Vaccines currently used in the United States may be less effective in preventing infection with the South African variant, although the vaccines protect against severe illness and death.
The Brazilian variant comes in 17 mutations, and antibodies developed after a COVID infection or vaccine may not be as effective in neutralizing some of them. DOH emphasized that more research is needed to understand all the variants. Vaccine manufacturers are working on boosters that will target new variants, DOH said.
Federal regulations don’t allow patients to be told which variant they have, but the treatment for all of them is the same, DOH said.