Peninsula in a race against variants

COVID-19 cases rising in state, nation

Health officers in Clallam and Jefferson counties are worried that April could be the cruelest month for COVID-19.

Drs. Allison Berry and Tom Locke say the race is on to vaccinate North Olympic Peninsula residents before variants spread as they have in other parts of Washington including the Seattle area, where infection rates are again rising.

Clallam County, where an unusually high 15 new cases were reported Friday and Saturday, upping the total to 1,080, has registered three as-yet unconfirmed cases of the B117 — or UK for United Kingdom — variant, Berry, Clallam County’s health officer, said Friday.

“We have had our first cases of the variants diagnosed here, so we have three cases that are consistent with the B117 variant,” she noted.

“That variant is more transmissible, and it causes more severe illness in young people. So, it’s here now, we are starting to see that.”

The cases were associated with out-of-county travel, Berry added.

She further explained that recent COVID-19 tests indicated mutations of the virus that correlate closely with the variant, but she won’t know for sure it’s B117 until sequencing tests are completed by the third week in April.

“What we’ve seen before is all of our samples were coming back with no mutations,” Berry said.

“All of a sudden last week, always in people who have travelled, we’re seeing mutations in the virus.

“So we’re starting to see some degree of a variant coming into the community, most likely B117.”

The 11 new overall cases reported Friday “were quite a big change from where we were,” she added.

There also is a “small workplace outbreak” for which contact tracing has been completed, Berry said, not identifying the workplace, city or region of the county where it occurred.

The distribution among all 11 cases “was kids, 20-somethings, and a chunk of 40-somethings related to the workplace,” Berry added.

“It is a good reminder that many of us are still not immune to this virus,” she said.

“If we gather, travel, and stop masking, all those kind of things, we will have a full-on fourth wave in our community, and it could really set us back.

“We’re closer to being done if we do things right in the next few weeks.

“The only way to get there is for all of us to get vaccinated.”

Locke, Jefferson County’s health officer, said Saturday the upward trend statewide is concerning.

Jefferson County recorded one more new case as of Friday and no new cases Saturday, bringing the total to 346.

“There’s a race to get people vaccinated before they get exposed and infected with the variants,” he said.

“If we can get them fully vaccinated, it won’t happen.”

Locke said the UK variant, which is projected to infect 50 percent of state residents by mid-April, is about 50 percent more contagious than COVID’s current version and has been known to put people in their 40s and 50s in the hospital.

“They’ve had genetically sequenced confirmation in Kitsap,” Locke added.

Everyone in the state 16 and older can be vaccinated beginning April 15.

In Jefferson County 49 percent of residents have received their initial shot and 34 percent are fully vaccinated, Locke said.

Forty percent of Clallam County has received a first dose of the vaccine and 30 percent both doses.

Berry said that the Centers for Disease Control has said recently it is safe to travel if fully vaccinated, but those who are not should quarantine for 10 days after traveling.

Berry said that it was first thought that herd immunity would be reached if 70 percent of a community were vaccinated.

“It’s looking more like we could do it with about 60 percent of our community vaccinated,” she said.

She estimated about 7 percent of Clallam has had COVID-19, meaning about 53 percent of residents may need to be vaccinated for herd immunity.

“We really need the whole community to come together to put us over the finish line.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, cases of COVID-19 reinfection have been reported but are rare.

Locke suggested the number for herd immunity might need to be higher than 60 percent.

“No one knows for certain” what is need for herd immunity, he said.

“Most people say it needs to be in the 70 to 80 percent range, especially as we get more infectious forms of the virus.

“We will have enough vaccines to achieve that.”

He said another hurdle is vaccine hesitancy, which even exists in an estimated 20 percent of health care workers.

“Jefferson County has one of the highest school vaccination exemption rates in the state,” Locke said.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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