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U.K. COVID-19 variant has been confirmed in Washington. Is it time to wear two masks?

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 26, 2021

Health officials are worried about coronavirus variants that spread more easily and have been found in Washington. One suggestion to fight the spread of disease is better masking, including, perhaps, asking people to double-mask.  (Peter Hamlin)
Health officials are worried about coronavirus variants that spread more easily and have been found in Washington. One suggestion to fight the spread of disease is better masking, including, perhaps, asking people to double-mask. (Peter Hamlin)

Health officials and health care leaders are encouraging Washington residents to up their mask game and take transmission precautions seriously after officials confirmed at least three cases of the COVID-19 variant first found in the United Kingdom.

State and Snohomish County health officials confirmed Saturday what they suspected: The variant B.1.1.7 was already here. It can spread more easily.

While researchers are studying the variant to see if it causes more serious illness, residents are being urged to recommit to rigorous masking and perhaps even double-mask to more fully protect themselves and others from transmitting or getting the virus.

“Be sure you’re wearing your mask; wear a better mask than you’re wearing now,” Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, told reporters Monday. “If you’re wearing a bandanna, stop wearing a bandanna and get a mask. If you’re wearing a single-ply cloth mask, get a two or three-ply cloth mask and wear it everywhere.”

The University of Washington Virology Lab screened more than 1,000 samples from the last month for the variant and found two cases in Snohomish County residents.

On Sunday, the Tacoma-Pierce County Public Health Department also confirmed one case of the variant. The person had mild symptoms and completed their isolation period.

Officials expect more cases of the variant in Washington, although data so far suggests prevalence is low in Western Washington. No COVID-19 variants have been confirmed in Eastern Washington thus far.

Viruses can change and mutate, causing new variants of the original to emerge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring nationally for at least three variants, which so far appear to spread quicker and easier than the original strains of the virus.

Currently there is no evidence the U.K. variant or others that have been found in the United States cause more severe illness or an increased risk of death, according to the CDC. The U.K. variant has been confirmed in at least 23 states, including Washington.

Modelers have predicted this strain could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned over the weekend the U.K. variant might be deadlier, but it is still too soon to tell, many researchers say.

“If it is more infectious then there’s a higher probability that you are going to get infected and a higher probability just by sheer numbers that we’re going to have more people who are sick,” Dr. Connie Davis, chief medical officer at Skagit Regional Health, told reporters on a hospital association call Monday. “We’re all waiting with bated breath (for information) on the increase in morbidity and mortality from the virus (strain).”

The CDC is still studying exactly how effective a mask is at protecting the wearer from getting infected, but guidance from the CDC says it “likely depends on the fabrics used and how your mask is made.”

Masks do reduce the spread of respiratory droplets from the wearer to others, thus protecting others around you from your own viral particles.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News that wearing two masks is likely more effective because it is adding another layer of physical covering to prevent droplets from getting in.

Two other COVID-19 variants have been identified in South Africa and Brazil. COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer are working to ensure their vaccine products are still effective against the newly identified strains.

Moderna announced on Monday its vaccine worked against both the U.K. and South African variants and is expected to protect against future strains of the virus as well. The company reported it is testing booster shots to increase effectiveness beyond their two-dose regimen, including a specific booster to fight off the South African variant.

The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine candidate also worked against the U.K. variant, as well as some of the key mutations found in the South African variant.

The vaccines are still effective and encouraged by health officials, although they might need to be tweaked in the future, Fauci told NBC.

Washington Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah asked residents to continue to adhere to social distancing, masking and avoiding social gatherings indoors.

“Now that this variant has been found, it underscores the absolute importance of doubling down on all the prevention measures to protect Washingtonians against COVID-19,” Shah said in a news release.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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