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Delta variant gaining traction in United States, gamma variant a threat in Washington

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

While the delta variant of COVID-19 has led to shutdowns in the United Kingdom and Portugal and is gaining significant ground in the United States, Washington and the rest of the Pacific Northwest have seen relatively small numbers of cases of the variant.

In the Pacific Northwest, which includes Idaho, Washington and Oregon, the delta variant makes up just 5% of variant cases detected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Delta variant cases make up just 9.2% of variant cases genotyped in Washington. That variant originated in India.

In fact, Dr. Scott Lindquist, the acting state health officer, is more concerned with the rise in the gamma variant, which originated in Brazil, and its recent increase in many counties in Washington.

“It’s very effectively outcompeting the alpha and delta variants at this point, and the rest of the country isn’t seeing this,” Lindquist said. “Many of our counties here are seeing the gamma variant; it’s got the highest hospitalization rate of all of our variants.”

Earlier this spring, the alpha variant, which first originated in the United Kingdom, dominated samples genotyped by the Department of Health and a handful of other labs in the state.

As of June 23, 47% of the variants detected in Washington are the alpha variant.

The gamma variant is gaining significant ground in the state, however, making up nearly 25% of variants identified as of June 23.

Nationwide, the Mountain West and Midwest have the highest percentage of delta variant cases reported, according to the CDC.

The detection of additional variants worries health officials, particularly because 45% of all Washington residents have yet to get one shot. So far, vaccines still appear to be working against all of the variants, which leaves unvaccinated people at significant risk.

“The best way to think about this is it’s a gladiator game right now; these variants are competing for people who aren’t vaccinated,” Lindquist said.

The majority of variants identified in Washington are more transmissible, and some of them are associated with greater risk for hospitalization or more severe disease than original strains of the virus. Some variants are being studied to see how effective they are at getting past vaccine immunity.

As of Wednesday, 68% of Washington residents 16 and over have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That includes data from the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The state goal is to reach 70% of vaccine coverage in people 16 and over before reopening on June 30.

Vaccination rates differ drastically from county to county, however. In Spokane County, 44% of the total population has received at least one dose, and of those eligible (12 and over), just 52% of residents have received at least one dose.

State and local health officials asked residents to seek shots if they haven’t already.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated, the variants await,” Lindquist said.

Here’s a look at local numbersThe Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 43 new cases on Wednesday and one additional death.

There have been 661 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 43 people in Spokane hospitals with COVID-19.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 73 new cases and no additional deaths.

There are 25 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus currently.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories 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.