Public Health Officials Warn of Serious New Wave of COVID-19 Cases

by Elizabeth Turnbull

Roughly one year after COVID-19 was identified for the first time in Washington State, health officials are warning of an overwhelming new wave of infection due to the arrival of potential variant strains, while areas in South King County remain hard-hit by the virus in general.

After highlighting a recent two-week reduction in COVID-19 cases in King County, in a press briefing on Friday, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer at Public Health — Seattle King County, gave a stark address, urging the public to prepare for the arrival of highly contagious variant strains that have already emerged in other states and areas in the world.

“We are used to living with real volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest and right now we’re also living in the shadow of a COVID-19 volcano,” Duchin said. “We need to expect the coronavirus equivalent of a Mount Saint Helens-like eruption at some time in the next few months.” 

Duchin described the situation as an inevitability — where the virus will spread more easily through the air and people will be more likely to catch the virus and, in turn, more easily infect others as well. This also has further implications for hospital capacity. 

“A more transmissible strain can cause a viral eruption in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths that can overwhelm our hospitals,” Duchin said. “This virus has been working out, it’s gotten faster and more fit, and we need to fight smarter and harder to beat it, but we can and must beat it down.” 

The coronavirus variant, which was first identified in the U.K., and is now present in the U.S., is estimated to be anywhere from 30% to 70% more transmissible than the original coronavirus, which began spreading in 2020. 

On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the variant may be connected to slightly higher rates of mortality, based on information from preliminary research.

In Denmark, some of the most extensive coronavirus sequencing efforts have projected that the British variant of the coronavirus will be the dominant strain in Denmark as soon as mid-February. As of Jan. 17 there were only 454 cases of the U.K. variant in their country.

While COVID-19 cases in Denmark have currently been dropping for a month, officials are projecting the new strain could quadruple cases by the beginning of April. 

As a part of Friday’s press briefing, Duchin said that the key to confronting new strains in the King County area will entail maintaining preventative strategies and taking them more seriously. These include avoiding crowded areas, social distancing, wearing a close-fitting and thick mask, and limiting social interactions. 

Thus far, a large portion of healthcare professionals — 80% of nurses, 81% of physician assistants, and 74% of physicians — have been vaccinated with at least one dose in King County. While vaccination remains a key piece in combating variant strains, Duchin said the major roadblock remains acquiring enough vaccines.

In the meantime, reliance on vaccination as the only way out of a new wave of infections will not be enough. 

“Vaccines are a light at the end of the tunnel,” Duchin said. “But the tunnel has gotten a bit longer and we’re still in it.”

After a two and half month rise in cases — which began in September and peaked on Dec. 5, with 770 new cases daily — case numbers have fallen to 360 new cases daily in the past seven days. Hospitalizations and deaths have also dropped, and in the last full week, 120 people with COVID-19 were admitted to King County hospitals and five people with the virus died each day.

As things stand today, areas in South King County such as Auburn, Kent, and Federal Way currently report the highest incidences of coronavirus cases. Once vaccine doses become readily available, King County Public Health has plans to open two sites to administer large volumes of doses in South King County. 

The City of Seattle also announced this week the creation of two mobile vaccination teams that will focus on adults living and working in adult family homes, particularly those in Seattle’s South End, followed by home health care workers and older, vulnerable adults living in permanent supportive housing and affordable housing.

Until further details on vaccinations become available and more is known about potential variants arriving in King County, Duchin is encouraging people to seriously observe coronavirus precautions.

”We can’t take anything for granted,” Duchin said. “We have to remember that this virus is lurking, it’s getting better, and we need to be prepared for a tremendous challenge over the next few months until our vaccination program is able to offer vaccines to enough people that [it] will help us slow the virus.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based journalist.

Featured image is attributed to the Province of British Columbia under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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