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State not looking to roll back for Delta variant, but could in future

People arrive to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine during opening day of the Community Vaccination Site, a collaboration between the City of Seattle, First & Goal Inc., and Swedish Health Services at the Lumen Field Event Center in Seattle, Washington on March 13, 2021. (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

While they’re keeping a close eye on it, state health officials are not too concerned about the new Delta variant at the moment.

But that could change if the numbers start to resemble what is being seen in other parts of the world.

The variant, which first was detected in India, has caused increased transmissibility, hospitalizations, and deaths, and shown decreased responses to vaccines in Europe and Asia, said state Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist.

But despite what is happening around the globe, Lindquist said Washington is not experiencing noticeably more hospitalizations or deaths from this variant.

“At this time we are not seeing that,” he said.

Delta variant should be ‘warning flag,’ says ER doctor

The state also is not seeing an overwhelming number of breakthrough cases from the Delta variant, which Lindquist said is a sign that the vaccine is working well against Delta for now. Breakthrough cases occur when someone gets COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated.

“We are not seeing massive amounts of breakthrough [cases], which would probably be the first signal we would get” that the vaccine isn’t protecting as well against Delta, he said.

The state is genotyping every single breakthrough case so that health officials can document which variants are more likely to break through. Right now, the Delta variant makes up about 3% of breakthrough cases; the other variants, on average, make up about 6% each.

Dr. Nathan Schlicher, a Tacoma ER doctor, told KIRO Radio earlier this week that the vaccines give a person about 85% protection against the Delta variant.

But as virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen pointed out on KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show, that protection really kicks in after the second dose — so a person is still quite susceptible to Delta between doses.

“It also, unfortunately, is pretty good at infecting people who have only been partially vaccinated,” she said.

The Delta variant only makes up about 6% of variant cases in Washington. In comparison, the Alpha variant, which began in the U.K., makes up more than half of variant cases, and at one point made up the vast majority of overall cases in Washington. There has also been a very rapid rise in the Gamma variant, which was first detected in Brazil and can cause more severe cases.

Still, Lindquist does have worries about the Delta variant.

“That is exactly what keeps me up at night,” he said. “The last thing I think about before I go to bed are the variants. The first thing I think about in the morning are the variants.”

Lindquist says it’s possible if Delta or the other variants massively increase, we could go back to tighter restrictions, but that’s not likely at the moment. He is hopeful that new booster shots from the vaccine companies may come out that are more geared toward the newest variants.

“If we start seeing our percentage of cases going up, of course we would do some distancing as needed, but I think that’s way down the track and there’s a lot more here [to try first],” he said.

Governor Jay Inslee agreed at a press conference on Thursday. While he said that he did not plan to delay the June 30 reopening because of this new variant, he did not rule out a rollback in the future if needed.

“As these variants continue to increase in our state, and the transmission rate increases, sometime in the future [staying open] may not be in the case,” he said. “We have to realize that remains a risk.”

Health experts say that the best thing we can do to prevent the variants from spreading — and to prevent coronavirus from creating even more mutant strains in the future — is to get vaccinated.

“We just need to vaccinate more people so that this variant cannot gain a foothold in Washington state,” Lindquist said.

Right now, the Delta variant is spreading fastest in unvaccinated communities, especially in Eastern Washington and in counties with lower vaccination rates.

“When you’ve got a third of your population not vaccinated, that’s over a million people who have a target on their back,” Inslee said.

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