State officials worried about Gamma variant ahead of summer events


Fireworks over Lake Union in Seattle on July 4, 2018. (KIRO Radio/Matt Pitman)

While other countries around the world battle the Delta variant, it’s another variant that has Washington health officials concerned — the Gamma variant, which was first detected in Brazil.

This variant, also known as P.1, has spread rapidly throughout the state, becoming nearly a quarter of all variant cases. In comparison, Delta makes up just 9%.

“The best way to think about this is, it’s like a gladiator’s game out there right now,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist at the Department of Health’s weekly briefing. “These viruses are competing for people who are unvaccinated.”

About 90% of new cases in Washington are variants, which tend to spread more easily and cause more severe COVID cases than the original strain. That means the variants are wreaking havoc in communities of people who are unvaccinated. King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said on Friday that “it’s just a matter of time” before people who are not vaccinated become infected with one of these variants.

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And infection with the Gamma variant is especially a rough time, because of all the variants in Washington, it has the highest hospitalization rate.

“The rest of the country isn’t seeing this big spike in the Gamma variant, but we are in the Northwest,” Lindquist said. “Canada had a very large outbreak of the Gamma variant in British Columbia, and many of our counties here are seeing the Gamma variant.”

State Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah said that it does not appear that the Gamma variant came here from B.C., noting that the closed border likely isn’t doing much to stop the spread.

“We’ve already seen the variants that we were concerned about thus far in our borders within the state of Washington, so that’s already happening,” he said.

State health officials did not answer whether or not they believed it was safe to reopen the border, which is currently closed until at least July 21, though some restrictions for Canadians are being eased.

They are, however, worried about how the variants might spread with the state’s June 30 reopening, the Fourth of July, summer travel, and other hot weather get-togethers coming up.

“We are concerned about that … any time you take your eye off this virus, this virus has shown that it has a way to continue to do things,” Shah said, calling it a “super squirrely virus that has broken every rule in the playbook.”

While he believes now is the right time to reopen, he noted that reopening does not mean that COVID is in the rearview and life is just going back to normal — especially not for those who remain unvaccinated.

“The pandemic is not over until it is truly over, and that is really hard when you see June 30th, or July Fourth with expected travel, and people really wanting to go out and about — even this weekend with the heat,” he said. “We are concerned about people not taking the appropriate precautions.”

While 68% of those 16 and older have had at least one dose, that still means about a third of adults have not yet had a dose of the vaccine. Shah advises anyone planning to travel for the Fourth of July to get that first dose now, so they can at least be partially protected when they step on the plane. Without a vaccine, he noted that people traveling can risk bringing the virus to the area they’re visiting, or bringing it back home with them.

“At least get that first dose in before you get on the flight on the Fourth of July,” he said. “Get that first dose in, this would be the time.”

He reminded Washingtonians that they are lucky to live in a country in which a vaccine is free, can be obtained right down the street, and may even come with free giveaways. Just across the border in Canada, for example, some people are having to wait months between doses because there is not enough supply to go around.

“Across the world, there are so many people who would do anything to get vaccinated, and here we have that resource in the United States of America,” he said.

Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of the state’s COVID Response, said that for the sake of everyone around the world who has not yet had the vaccine, we all must continue to use caution.

“It cannot be [over]stated how fortunate we are in this country to have three vaccines … the rest of the world is catching up to us in terms of vaccination,” she said. “And the pandemic doesn’t end when we reopen Washington state, it ends when we protect communities all over the globe.”

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