King County health officer: Variants, vaccine, behaviors will determine course of virus
As COVID-19 case counts have been decreasing in King County and are now leveling off after the third wave in the late fall, Public Health — Seattle & King County’s Dr. Jeff Duchin outlined a few things that may influence the future course of the pandemic locally.
“There are a few things that are happening at the same time in the context of our falling case counts that together will determine how we do over the next few months,” Dr. Duchin said in his weekly update. “These include the increasing variants of concern, the pace of our vaccine rollout, and our behaviors.”
Variants of concern
In terms of variants, the P1 variant strain first identified in Brazil has been detected in a COVID-19 test from King County. All three main variants of concern in the United States have been found locally, the most prevalent being B.1.1.7, which Duchin said is known to spread significantly better than previous strains and is possible to cause more severe illness.
“But it’s important to note that current vaccines offer a high-level protection against this variant,” Duchin said. “Preliminary information on vaccine effectiveness against the other strains suggests protection may be reduced to some degree, but more information is needed.”
“The B.1.1.7 and other variants are a wildcard that can hurt us if we’re not careful or if we’re unlucky,” he added. “But it’s a major advantage that our current vaccines protect against the most common B.1.1.7, and likely provide significant protection against the others.”
Overall transmission is decreasing in King County, Duchin says, but the viruses that are out there in the community now are likely to be the more contagious variants.
“Although it looks like we have an advantage at the moment, if we want to keep it, we need to work for it, and to continue to respect this virus,” Duchin said.
Another key factor that will influence how King County, and Washington state, fares in the coming weeks is through vaccinations.
Duchin reported Friday that there are now more King County residents protected by the COVID-19 vaccines than have been infected in total since the outbreak began.
As part of Gov. Inslee’s announcements this week, a new tier of vaccine eligibility will start on March 17, which Duchin says means there will be more residents eligible than there is vaccine supply.
“There has been some remarkable progress across the county in reaching currently eligible populations with vaccine, but we anticipate that in King County as vaccine eligibility expands, the gap between supply and demand will increase,” Duchin said. “There will be hundreds of thousands of new King County residents becoming eligible before corresponding increases in vaccine become available.”
Due to that gap, he warns that it could takes weeks before those who are eligible are able to access the vaccine. But when the supply increases, and Duchin says it will, the county has the capacity to administer the vaccines at a much larger scale. Dr. Duchin said the county is administering about 100,000 doses per week now, but has the capacity in place to administer 300,000 per week as soon as the supply is available.
Behaviors and precautions
As the state moves to Phase 3 and there’s more contact with one another, Dr. Duchin warns that there will also be more opportunities for COVID-19 to spread.
“There are many ways in which we’re moving in the right direction, and I thank everyone who is continuing to endure this marathon and helping our community reach the finish line,” he said. “But we should have no illusions about the fact that COVID-19 can still deliver a knockout punch if we lose our focus and turn away.”
“As we open up and have more contact with one another, there will be more opportunities for COVID-19 to spread,” he added. “So if we do more, let’s be sure to be smart about it.”
If we are careful and use precautions, and we continue to increase the number of people who are vaccinated, Duchin envisions reaching a point of “equilibrium with the virus that we can live with.”
“We are looking forward to the day when this disease is no longer our sole preoccupation, and we can turn our attention toward so many other things that we need to do in our community to heal from this outbreak,” he said.
“In the meantime, we need to hang in there for a couple more months, give it our same level of effort that we’ve shown to date,” he continued. “With good luck, and good effort, and continued vaccine supply, I’m very optimistic that we’ll have a very nice summertime.”