South African strain of COVID-19 now in Washington

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A strain of coronavirus that spreads more quickly and could kill more people is now in Washington and Idaho.

It’s the South African variant, which was found by genome sequencing at a University of Washington lab. The patient tested positive for the COVID-19 strain in late January, but were unaware they had it, meaning we don’t know where it comes from.

“[We’re] very concerned with how this is going to effect our trajectories,” said acting state health officer Dr. Scott Lindquist.

On top of the South African variant, there were 19 new cases of the U.K. variant found in Washington, bringing the total to 39. It is not uncommon for viruses to evolve, but these two variants have health officials worried.

“Some variants, called ‘variants of concern,’ are significant because they’re better at spreading or infecting us,” explained King County public health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, “Both the B.1.1.7 and the B.1.351 are variants of concern.”

The B.1.351 variant from South Africa was identified in December and has been found in 13 states. It is not known if it causes more serious symptoms, but it can reduce the effectiveness of some vaccines.

The B.1.1.7 variant from the United Kingdom can spread more easily and quickly than other variants—however, current vaccines provide good protection against the strain.

“Although we expect the proportions and number of these variants to grow over the coming weeks, it’s not possible to predict exactly how fast this will happen,” said Duchin.

So far the variants have only been found on the west side of the state, but experts believe it’s in Eastern Washington, as well. Only through additional testing will they know the full extent.

“Yes, I think it is here. Yes, I do believe it is in Eastern Washington already. We just are not sampling enough to detect yet,” said Lindquist. “I wouldn’t even hazard a guess of how many samples out there that are positive that have not been tested compared to everyone that’s tested.”

Health experts say now that both variants have been discovered in the state, it’s more important than ever to take preventative measures like mask wearing, washing your hands and avoiding large crowds. We also reached out to the Spokane Regional Health District to see how they are preparing for this, but have not heard back.

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