PORT ANGELES — The BA.2 subvariant has reached the North Olympic Peninsula.
One case of that version of omicron has been discovered in Clallam County. The subvariant, which is considered to be a more contagious version of COVID-19 than the original omicron, was confirmed in a Clallam County resident receiving health care in Kitsap County, Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, told Jefferson County commissioners on Monday and a meeting of the Port Angeles Business Association (PABA) on Tuesday.
“While cases are low right now, we are likely to see cases rise again due to the BA.2 version of omicron, which is spreading across Europe and the U.K,” Berry said Tuesday.
“What’s happening in the U.K. has often been the barometer of what will happen in the U.S. when it comes to COVID-19,” she added. The UK situation previews that of the U.S. by about a month, she told commissioners on Monday.
Despite the potential surge in cases, Berry does not believe most will need to return to mask-mandates in public places as yet.
Both Clallam and Jefferson counties are in the low-risk category now. As of Tuesday, Clallam County’s case rate was at 78 cases per 100,000 population while Jefferson County’s was 62 cases per 100,000.
Case rates are a reflection of cases reported during a two-week period. They are computed using a formula based on 100,000 population even for counties that do not have 100,000 people living in them.
“That’s why we are here and unmasked and in a much better spot where it’s actually unlikely that anyone in this room is carrying COVID-19,” Berry said.
The health officer has emphasized that this is not the end of the pandemic but just a lull.
“At the low-risk threshold, most people can safely unmask,” Berry said.
But those who are at high risk of severe disease, such as people older than 65 or with underlying health issues — as well as those who have people at home to protect — should continue to wear masks indoors until case rates fall to at least 50 per 100,000, Berry said in Port Townsend on Monday.
The next surge of the disease, which has moved from existing as a pandemic that could be stopped to an endemic disease, is likely to be less severe than earlier ones, Berry said in Port Angeles on Tuesday.
“While I do think cases will rise here again, I think that we are unlikely to see the level of severe surges we would see in our past, where we would overwhelm our health care system and critical infrastructure,” Berry said.
Berry was the guest speaker at the first in-person meeting of PABA since March 2021, conducted without masks.
“I want to start by acknowledging that I think it has been a terrible couple of years for all of us,” Berry said.
“It’s been a really terrible time across the board for businesses owners, workers and people like myself that have been doing this kind of work, and I just want to acknowledge that many of us have had some degree of loss in the last couple of years.”
Berry said that, despite the tough times and the losses, the sacrifices that were made to protect the residents of the Peninsula were not in vain.
“We have also had one of the lowest death rates due to COVID-19 in the United States in Clallam County,” Berry said.
“In Washington state, our death rate due to COVID-19 is 162 per 100,000. That’s roughly half of the U.S. death rate, and in Clallam County, we are even lower than that,” Berry said.
“All these challenging actions that we have taken have made a huge difference in keeping our neighbors safe. As an older county, we were on track to lose upwards of 1,200 people if we just let COVID-19 run through,” Berry said.
A total of 108 Clallam County residents and 28 Jefferson County residents have died from COVID-19 over the past two years.
“There has been a challenge throughout the pandemic for messaging and communication,” Berry said. “You’ll see mixed messages and different stories about where we are in the pandemic.
“The good news is, I do think things are getting better,” she continued. “We are seeing less severe disease due to COVID-19 at this point.
“But there is a common misconception that that’s because the virus has changed though, and that’s not actually true,” Berry added.
“All of the variants, except for omicron, were more severe than the original virus; omicron was equally severe,” she said.
“The outcome of omicron was milder because so many people are immune, and the primary way in our community to become immune was to get vaccinated, and that is what is decreasing the severity of omicron,” Berry said.
Jefferson and Clallam counties have high rates of vaccination against COVID-19. Clallam has 69 percent of its population vaccinated and 63 percent boosted. It’s higher in Jefferson, where 81.4 percent are vaccinated and 76 percent boosted.
“It’s highly atypical for a county of our political makeup,” Berry said of Clallam County, “and really speaks to how many of our citizens across the political spectrum came together to get this done.”
Berry commented on being a target of a legal battle with local business owners as well as being the recipient of several threats, some of which came from people who didn’t even live in the state of Washington, she said.
“Unfortunately, this has become a highly politicized virus,” she said. “It shouldn’t be. Viruses are just viruses.
“It shouldn’t matter who you vote for, and in Clallam County, with some notable exceptions, the vast majority of this pandemic response has been bipartisan,” Berry said.
Masking and vaccination mandates that were set at the height of the pandemic have recently been lifted. Berry hopes to see a shift in attitude toward wearing masks from a “political football” to seeing them as something similar to a raincoat, something to put on when case rates are high and take off when they are low.
Reporter Ken Park can be reached at email@example.com.
Executive Editor Leah Leach contributed to this story.