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Officials “concerned but not alarmed” about new variant found in Whatcom County resident, as King County announces detection of different new variant first detected in South Africa

As of Tuesday, Feb. 23, 11.54% of all Whatcom County residents have received their first dose of the vaccine, which health officials say is effective against new variants. // Photo courtesy of the Whatcom County Health Department.

By Nolan Baker

The U.K. variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Whatcom County, the county health department stated in a press release Tuesday, Feb. 23. 

Just minutes after the announcement, the Washington State Department of Health released a statement confirming the presence of the South African variant of COVID-19 in King County.

The U.K. variant, identified as B.1.1.7, has been detected in multiple counties around the state before it was finally found in a Whatcom County resident earlier this week. Local health officials say they had been expecting this news. 

“We are concerned, but not alarmed,” said Whatcom County Health Officer Dr. Greg Stern. “We expect this variant will continue to spread over the next couple of months.”

Both the U.K. and South African variants have been categorized by the state department of health as “variants of concern,” due to their increased transmissibility compared to common strains.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which was one of the first agencies to study the U.K. variant, found it to have an estimated 70% increase in transmissibility compared to previous strains. However, the ECDC said they had found, “no indication at this point of increased infection severity associated with the new variant.”

Health officials around the state also stressed that the two most available vaccines for COVID-19 in the United States, from Moderna and Pfizer, have shown to be just as effective against the new variants of concern.

“We’re encouraged that the current vaccines work well to protect against it,” Stern said. 

While the U.K. variant has been circulating within the state for multiple weeks, the newest variant of concern for the Washington State Department of Health is B.1.351, otherwise known as the South African variant. 

The variant was identified Monday, Feb. 22 at the University of Washington Virology laboratory from a King County patient who tested positive Jan. 28, according to the Washington State Department of Health’s press release. Details about the patient’s travel history are not available because officials have not been able to reach them through contact tracing efforts.

The current number of U.K. variant cases identified in Washington is at 39 as of the Feb. 23 press release. Of those 39 confirmed cases, 19 have been identified in just the past week, according to Dr. Scott Lindquist, state health officer for the Washington State Department of Health. 

“I really want to caution us,” Lindquist said in a media briefing Feb. 23. “With the emergence of these variants, especially a doubling in the number of our variants detected this week, I’m very concerned how this is going to affect our trajectory. So this is now the time to really double down on all the efforts.”

Health department officials urge residents to continue following established social distancing and masking guidelines, given the increased chance of transmission with these newly identified viruses. 

Vaccine availability in Whatcom County continues to be seriously limited, even for those who are now eligible, the county health department said. But the county also expects to receive a significant increase of vaccines in the coming weeks. 

As of Feb. 23, there are 12,030 Whatcom County residents that are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Whatcom County Health Department. 25,996 residents have received at least their first dose, which accounts for 11.54% of the county. 

The Whatcom County Health Department, in conjunction with multiple healthcare providers, announced Feb. 18 a “large-scale community vaccination clinic” at Bellingham Technical College in March. They hope to administer up to 5,000 vaccine doses every week, dramatically increasing the vaccination rate in the county. 

“It’s an honor to work collaboratively with our partners to develop plans for a community vaccination clinic that will be open to all,” said Erika Lautenbach, director of the Whatcom County Health Department.


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