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King County health officer: ‘Dangerous’ new COVID variant poses ‘serious problem’

Dr. Jeff Duchin, a health officer with Seattle and King County Public Health, speaks during a press conference. (Getty Images)

With a new COVID-19 variant now spreading in dozens of countries, King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin is issuing a warning to Washingtonians.

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The variant — known officially as B.1.1.7 — is thought to have originated in southeast England sometime in September, and has since been responsible for over half of new infections in the United Kingdom, according to the World Health Organization.

The variant is thought to be significantly more infectious than other strains of COVID. And while it hasn’t yet been identified in Washington, Dr. Duchin warns that it’s still a “serious problem” the state needs to be prepared to handle in the days and weeks ahead.

“It’s likely a matter of time before it arrives here and we need to beware and prepare,” he said, noting that there’s also a possibility that it’s actually already present in the state “at low levels and undetected.”

If it does eventually gain a foothold in Washington, “it will spread rapidly unless we slow it,” Duchin predicts.

With the more-contagious variant spreading faster than the average strain of the virus, that increases the risk of infection for everyone.

“Each person infected with the variant strain spreads it to more people than they would have if infected with previous strains,” Dr. Duchin said.

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The good news, he points out, is that the new variant doesn’t appear to lead to more severe illnesses or higher death rates. Even given that fact, though, the higher infection rate still makes it “dangerous.”

That will necessitate continued precautions, including limiting gatherings in large groups outside of households, always wearing face coverings in public, and avoiding crowded and poorly-ventilated spaces.

“This is important: THE VARIANT STRAIN SPREADS THE SAME WAY as other COVID-19 strains, IT’S JUST BETTER AT IT,” Dr. Duchin emphasized. “For this reason, WE NEED TO GET BETTER at the same effective ways of stopping the spread until enough of us are vaccinated.”

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