While the coronavirus delta variant is creating alarming trends in some areas, including parts of Washington, health officials say it’s not a major concern in the state yet. But they also stressed the need for vaccines to keep it that way.
The coronavirus delta variant accounted for 41% of sequenced samples in Washington from late June.
State Secretary of Health Umair Shah said the growing number of identified delta variant cases is not in and of itself cause for concern. What happens next could be, however.
“We’re not seeing that increase (in cases) yet, and we’re hoping we don’t see it related to breakthroughs with vaccines,” Shah said.
In the past two weeks, there is a higher proportion of the delta variant in the state than the alpha or gamma variants, both of which dominated the state earlier this year.
The delta variant has been detected in the Puget Sound region, Yakima, the Tri-Cities and Spokane.
Spokane County has eight confirmed cases of the delta variant, up from just one confirmed last week.
The delta variant has rapidly spread throughout other parts of the country, leading to an increase in cases. In some southern states, the delta variant is leading to a surge in cases and hospitalizations, especially in those who are not vaccinated.
In Washington state, that has yet to happen.
When case counts begin to increase in certain communities, particularly those that have low vaccination rates, or when a significant number of breakthrough cases are detected due to a variant, that would be cause for concern, Shah said.
The Department of Health monitors variant counts and sequencing on a daily basis to see which variants are circulating, as well as how well vaccines are protecting against them. So far, while there have been some breakthrough cases detected, the vaccines are still holding up against the variants.
“The best way to protect one’s self, no matter the strain, is to get vaccinated,” Shah said.
Viruses mutate as they spread, and the way to prevent more deadly variants is to eliminate hosts for the virus. This is done through vaccinations, health officials reiterated on Wednesday. The delta variant so far appears to be much more contagious, especially in communities with low vaccination rates.
“When it comes to reports about the delta variant in the southern states, there’s a lot of concern right now for those counties with lower vaccination rates, and they’re now seeing uptick in cases and a lot of those upticks are related to the delta variant,” Shah said.
Anyone who is not vaccinated is vulnerable to any of the COVID-19 variants circulating, including those who have already had the virus. In Spokane County, two children under the age of 12 have tested positive for the delta variant, Dr. Francisco Velázquez said on Wednesday.
Children under the age of 12 are still vulnerable to the virus, and health officials hope vaccines will soon be approved for children of all ages. If vaccination rates stay low and more variants emerge, health officials are concerned about the coming fall and winter, when indoor activities can enable easier virus transmission.
Shah said it’s a race against time to get a vaccine approved for children under 12 before winter, in order to protect more of the state’s population who currently are not eligible.
In Spokane County, the group testing positive for the virus at the highest rates right now is the group that is least vaccinated.
Young adults ages 18 to 34, as well as teenagers, have the lowest vaccination rates in Spokane County, with less than 35% fully vaccinated.
“These variants are taking a hold of younger populations, and that’s where we really need to stress immunization regardless of your past history,” Velázquez said, encouraging young people to get a shot even if they’ve had COVID in the past year and a half.
Ultimately, the pandemic is not over, and it will be prolonged for as long as people choose not to get vaccinated.
“We are likely going to be living with this virus for a long time coming,” Shah said. “It’s not going away any time in the foreseeable future; keep that in mind and be ready for that, but at the same time, get vaccinated.”
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