Updated Jan. 29, 2021
It is worrisome, but not surprising, to learn that the new COVID-19 variant strain that has been reported in many U.S. states has now been detected in King County. On Friday, Jan. 29, UW Medicine notified Public Health – Seattle & King County that the B117 strain of COVID-19 has been identified in a test sample originating in King County. This follows other instances of the B117 strain surfacing in neighboring Snohomish and Pierce Counties.
The strain spreads more easily than others and quickly became the dominant strain circulating in the United Kingdom, where it was first identified. The CDC recently predicted the B117 strain will be the predominant strain in the US by March.
As we confront this more contagious strain of COVID-19, here’s the important thing to understand: The variant strain spreads in the same ways as other COVID-19 strains, it’s just better at it. That means we need to get better at our countermeasures: masks, physical distance, good ventilation and staying home when possible.
“This virus has been working out. It’s gotten faster and more fit. And we need to fight smarter and harder to beat it,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County.
“We should expect the variant strains to become widespread here, and that will make the outbreak harder for us to control. But we have the advantage of early warning to help us prepare.”
Faster spread means more people get infected, leading to more COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and more deaths in a shorter period, and that is dangerous. A rapid increase in people with COVID-19 can quickly overwhelm our healthcare system’s ability to respond. In addition, preliminary data from the UK suggests that the variant may be associated with more severe illness, but this is not certain at this time and their evaluation is ongoing. The CDC does not currently have conclusive evidence that this variant causes more severe illness.
It’s likely that the vaccines that have been developed will still be highly effective against it, though that’s something the scientific community overall will keep a close eye on.
All viruses mutate, and most mutations don’t change how the virus affects us. But sometimes, the mutations, as in this B117 variant, can make the virus more contagious – meaning if exposed to the variant strain, your risk of becoming infected is higher than with other strains. And if infected with this variant strain, you are more likely to spread your COVID-19 to others — meaning each person infected with the variant strain spreads it to more people, on average, than they would have if infected with the earlier strain.
Labs run by the state of Washington, the University of Washington and others collect a portion of positive COVID-19 tests for genetic sequencing. Those sequences are then analyzed by specific labs to detect and track over time the presence of variant strains.
Steps we can take
The appearance of the B117 variant in Washington is a wakeup call. It’s more important than ever to do all we can to stop the spread of COVID-19 – in our homes, workplaces, social lives and wherever we gather – and to push cases down as low as possible BEFORE the B117 strain can spread widely and gain an advantage. This means we need to meet this new challenge by going all in on the steps that we know work, starting now.
If you have symptoms of COVID-19, isolate yourself away from others and get tested. Stay in isolation while waiting for your test results and until your healthcare provider or a Public Health investigator lets you know when to end your isolation (usually 10 days after symptom onset if you are improving and have not had a fever in at least 24 hours). The person with COVID-19 and others in the home should wear masks until all ill people are out of isolation.
If you think you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, get tested even if you don’t have symptoms and be diligent about quarantining and staying away from others, including wearing a mask in your home around other people.
Minimize your contacts and activities with people outside your household, wear a well-fitted face mask around anyone you don’t live with and stay six feet or more apart, wash your hands often, avoid crowded indoor spaces and remember that a well-ventilated area is safer. These are our most effective tools in the fight against COVID-19, including this new, more infectious B117 strain.
Lastly, when you are eligible, get vaccinated to protect yourself. Vaccination is ultimately our best defense, but at this time, it can’t be our only defense. New, more contagious strains of COVID-19 are concerning, but we’ve had a year to get to know this virus and how to prevent its spread. We can beat this variant strain, but it will require serious and renewed effort from all of us for a few months. And we need to start right now doing all we can to stop the spread, before the variant spreads too widely and gains momentum that could make our situation even tougher to manage.
- More information from Washington State Department of Health’s blog on identification of the new variant.
- Press release from Snohomish County Health District
Originally posted 1/23/2021