Good Vaccine News Overshadowed by Emergence of More Contagious, Possibly Deadlier COVID Variant in State

by Carolyn Bick

Though Washington State will be getting more doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as well as specialized syringes that will be able to coax out one extra dose from every vial of Pfizer vaccine, the good news Gov. Jay Inslee shared during his press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 26 was somewhat overshadowed by the arrival of the significantly more contagious novel coronavirus variant in the state, the discovery of which was officially announced this past weekend in a Department of Health press release.

The Department of Health (DOH) announced the discovery in a press release sent out on the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 23. The DOH said in the press release that the UW Medicine Virology Lab had that same day detected two cases of the variant, the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01 or B.1.1.7. The press release said the lab detected the B.1.1.7 variant in specimens collected from two Snohomish County residents. The lab screened for the variant between Dec. 25, 2020 and Jan. 20.

“Data collected so far suggests a low prevalence of the B.1.1.7 variant in Western Washington. Although these are the first detected B.1.1.7 variants in the state, it is likely that other cases exist and will come to light through ongoing surveillance,” the press release said.

The B.1.1.7 variant appears to be significantly more contagious, due to the “stickier” nature of its surface, and there is emerging science to suggest that the disease it causes is more severe and deadlier

This form of the virus is so much more contagious that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the B.1.1.7 variant could become the dominant form of the virus as early as March of this year, despite just 293 confirmed cases of this variant form existing in the U.S. as of this writing. Additionally, according to the DOH press release, as of Jan. 22, there were only 195 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. That was just three days before the newly reported metric of 293 cases nationwide.

While B.1.1.7 variant does not appear to be vaccine-resistant, other variants of the virus that have been found in South Africa and in Brazil appear to have some vaccine resistance. Some scientists have raised the possibility that the Brazilian variant may be able to evade antibodies, while the South African variant may be more generally resistant to existing vaccines. In response, one vaccine manufacturer, Moderna, has said it is working on a booster shot for the South African variant.

The more transmissible B.1.1.7 could spell trouble for eligible Washingtonians who are still waiting to be scheduled for their vaccinations. Washingtonians have reported problems getting scheduled through Phase Finder and interminable wait times using the phone to try to schedule an appointment and even at vaccination sites

Bridget McKenna, grandmother to the Emerald’s own Jessie McKenna, signed up through Phase Finder on Jan. 18. However, she still hasn’t gotten a date, or even an estimated date, for when she will be vaccinated.

“As Governor Inslee continues his efforts to allocate vaccines, and ensure that there are enough vaccines to cover everyone expeditiously, it will likely take at least several weeks before we can offer you a vaccine,” the most recent email McKenna received reads. “We recognize that this is likely to be very distressing and frustrating and apologize that we are not able to support you more quickly. At this time there are very few available appointments.”

In the Jan. 26 press conference, Inslee acknowledged this issue, and said that the state is working as hard as possible to surmount the issue. He said the state can only work with the amount of vaccine it is given, which is why even just a 16% increase in the amount of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccine the federal government will be sending Washington State is good news, he said. He also applauded the Biden administration’s decision to send the state specialized syringes that can get one more dose out of what is typically a five-dose vial of Pfizer vaccine, bringing the total number of doses from one vial up to six.

It is also because of limited vaccine supply that Inslee said he will not consider vaccinating teachers whose school districts have chosen to reopen for in-person learning. In response to a Northwest News Network reporter’s question, Inslee said that “there’s a mathematical equation here that we have to face.

“When you give a 25-year-old second grade teacher … that vaccine, her 80-year-old grandmother doesn’t get it, and her 65-year-old … mother doesn’t get it,” Inslee said. “Every teacher that is vaccinated today means one less 80-90-100-70-65-year-old person gets the vaccine, and we don’t have enough vaccine for those folks.”

There are 1.7 million people eligible for the vaccine right now, Inslee said, and the state is only getting about 116,000 doses per week.

“I just do not believe that 25-year-old teachers believe that they should get in line ahead of their 80-year-old grandparents. I fundamentally don’t believe that,” Inslee said. “While we have limited doses, we simply can’t do that today. We hope to do that as soon as we can. And, as I have indicated, we are making real progress to accelerate to the day where we can do that.”

Earlier in the press conference, Inslee shared that the state has managed to increase its vaccine administration by an average of 10,000 doses per day, and shared data that the state increased vaccine administration from a little more than 16,000 doses on Jan. 19 to a little more than 39,000 doses on Jan. 25.

Inslee also said that the vaccine allocation King County has been receiving has been equitable. He said that the County has received about 32% of the state’s received vaccines and that the County comprises about 30% of the state’s population. This contradicts King County Council Vice Chair Reagan Dunn’s statement in a press release on Jan. 25 announcing legislation to acquire an equitable amount of vaccine for the County. In the press release, Dunn stated that the County has only received 23%–25% of the State’s vaccine supply.

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.

Featured image is a screenshot of the Centers for Disease Control’s map of the more contagious and possibly deadlier B.1.1.7 variant.

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