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King County health officer: COVID-19 variants are ‘smarter and faster’

Fetiya Omer, a pharmacist, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Thuan Ong, a doctor who works in long-term care facilities, at the University Of Washington Medical Center on Dec. 15, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

After two and a half months of steady rise in King County, new COVID-19 cases peaked around 770 cases per day, then decreased through most of December. Now, cases are on the rise again since Dec. 27, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County.

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From Dec. 27 to Jan. 2, incidence in King County has increased by over 30%. This “upswing,” Duchin says, reflects the activities that people engaged in during the winter holidays, as well as ongoing spread in workplaces, households, and other locations.

Dr. Duchin said it’s not possible to predict how high this current peak will go or when it will level off, plus there’s the added concern of new strains — like the one first found in the United Kingdom — that may spread more rapidly.

“We should expect the variant strain to become widespread here, and that will make the outbreak harder to control,” Duchin said.

He says the county and region needs to “beware and prepare” for new strains and more challenges ahead. While vaccines are an important part of the defense against COVID-19, Duchin says they can not be our only defense.

“I know no one wants to hear this, it’s the last thing I wanted to hear, but the virus has gotten smarter and faster,” he said, again underscoring the importance of continuing to rely on proven preventative measures to limit the spread of the virus.

“The bottom line though is the vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel,” Duchin added. “But we’re still in the tunnel, and it’s gotten a bit longer.”

In terms of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, King County is still in Phase 1A, focusing on frontline health care workers and long-term care facility residents and staff. The county has the highest number of eligible personnel in Phase 1A in the state, but received 23% of the state’s total allocation of doses. As Dr. Duchin explained, that means, proportionally, the county hasn’t received the amount needed to offer the vaccine to all those eligible.

“Our main challenge is clearly not having enough vaccine for all who are eligible,” he said. “And as we know, the resources for vaccine distribution are limited.”

King County has administered more than 60% of the doses it has been allocated, Duchin said. He believes the county is doing a good job of distribution at this point, while recognizing there’s room for improvement, but says the “main bottleneck,” at least in King County, is vaccine supply.

Dr. Duchin added that the health care workers in the county — and across the state — are trying to manage cases, as they have been since the beginning of the pandemic, while trying to stand up vaccination clinics. The county is working out ways to increase the capacity for vaccinations when there are adequate supplies to take advantage of, Duchin explained.

Looking ahead, he says he’s “encouraged” by the news from president-elect Joe Biden about the “additional resources that will be forthcoming” to support both the vaccination campaign and the overall response to the pandemic.

For now, Dr. Duchin said it’s important to keep practicing the same prevention measures we know work — wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding unnecessary contacts and poorly ventilated spaces, washing hands, and limiting activities. The vaccine will help, but it will take many months before enough people are vaccinated to have immunity — a lengthy timeline that Duchin says was known from the start.

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As for King County moving to Phase 2 and reopening more activities, it is possible, he says, but transmission rates and case counts have to come down.

“We’re going to get there by doing the things we know work to suppress COVID-19,” he said. “… We can suppress this virus. Other countries have done it. … We can do it again.”

“I am really tired of not doing anything with my family and with my friends. I am exhausted, I know all of you are too,” Duchin added. “But if we want to get this virus under control, if we want to move forward, … we need to take very seriously all the preventative measures that we know work, and put them together in a layered approach.”

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