Idaho officials are gearing up to boost their capacity to put coronavirus test samples through genetic sequencing to identify concerning mutations.
The state health department, with limited sequencing capacity, has until now asked testing labs to only send positive test samples that seem like they could be caused by variants, such as if someone traveled or the virus had odd gene properties.
This week, it’s making a big change: Asking labs to send every positive test they have. “We’ll figure out a way to get as many of those tested as possible,” the state’s top public health researcher, Dr. Christine Hahn, said Tuesday.
Hahn said officials hope the policy change will provide a “representative sample” for the presence of variants in the state.
“We’d like to be further ahead than we are but I’m reassured that we’re not too far behind 8-ball right now,” Hahn said.
The change comes while health experts warn about the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is believed to be more infectious. Idaho has only recorded one instance of delta. The state’s coronavirus case rates have steadily declined this year, while the rate of tests that return positive has dropped to less than 5%, which indicates that virus monitoring has improved markedly. Hahn said that means it’s unlikely variants are surging in state.
Public health experts worry that the more infectious strain will threaten areas with low vaccination rates. Delta was first found in India during the country’s surge. It has become the dominant strain in the U.K., where cases are rising. American public health officials say delta accounts for 20% of new cases, doubling every two weeks. They expect it to soon become the dominant strain here.
By Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said 542 coronavirus cases were variants.
“The delta variant is currently the greatest threat in the U.S. to our attempt to eliminate COVID-19,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, according to the Associated Press.
Viruses mutate as they spread. Look to flu strains as an example. Not all mutations are inherently concerning. But some may make the virus more contagious, deadlier or even resistant to things thought to provide some level of immunity, including both past infections and full vaccinations.
The vaccines are believed to be effective against circulating variants. But, health experts say getting vaccinated as soon as possible is crucial to preventing especially dangerous variants. Each time someone becomes infected, the virus has another chance to change.
“We know our vaccines work against (the delta) variant. However this variant represents a set of mutations that could lead to future mutations that evade our vaccines,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday, according to National Public Radio.
Earlier this year, when the more infectious alpha variant was spotted in the U.K. amid spiking cases, health experts warned about a surge of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. That mostly didn’t happen. The Atlantic recently reported people should “expect the unexpected” with the delta variant.
Delta’s rapid growth “spells trouble for schools this fall and for states with low vaccination rates,” Dr. David Pate, former CEO of St. Luke’s Health System and pandemic advisor to Gov. Brad Little, said in a June 15 tweet.
Ramping up variant tests in Idaho labs represents a big shift from this spring.
Just before Idaho Falls became the nation’s worst COVID-19 hotspot in mid-March, the state had received less than 40 samples from eastern Idaho for variant testing, the Post Register reported.
One of the region’s largest test sites that week tripled the number of samples it had sent in total – rising from 10 to 30 throughout the pandemic. The next week, two concerning variants were discovered to be circulating in eastern Idaho.
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