A new variant of the coronavirus that is more contagious and could evade vaccine-generated antibodies has been found in King County.

The state’s first case of the variant that first emerged in Brazil was confirmed, Dr. Umair Shah, the state’s secretary of health, said during a Thursday news briefing.

“We need to watch this one very, very closely,” he said.

In addition to the variant discovered this week, the state now has 99 confirmed cases of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom and the variant that was initially found in South Africa.

The state’s health officials, while concerned about the coronavirus variants, are encouraged by the increasing number of people being vaccinated.

COVID-19 vaccine supply remains tight but could be increasing soon. Getting more doses into arms is vital as variants of the virus continue to grow.

More than 2 million doses of the vaccines have been administered in Washington, and this week, for the first time, the state hit its goal of vaccinating 45,000 people a day. Of those 2 million doses about 60% of Washingtonians who are 65 and older have gotten one shot of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines and 33% have received both doses, Shah said.

More than 100,000 doses have been put into arms at the state’s mass-vaccination sites, and 18% of all state residents have gotten one shot and 10% have had both doses.

Pierce County’s top public-health official said that appointments are available at the county’s mass-vaccination sites, which is a change from when the sites first opened and appointments were gone within 15 to 20 minutes.

“We’ve got vaccine. We’ve got availability,” said Dr. Anthony Chen, director of health at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. “People need to get vaccinated.”

Washington’s allocation next week will be 325,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna combined, with vaccine providers requesting 410,000 doses, Michele Roberts, a state Department of Health assistant secretary, said in Thursday’s briefing.

The state will not be getting any of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week and probably not for a couple of weeks more, Roberts said.

Hospital leaders expect the focus of health organizations to shift from concern about supply to concern about demand.

“We think it’s going to be a pretty quick flip,” said Cassie Sauer, president of the Washington Hospital Association, during a Monday media briefing.

Sauer predicted that boosting demand would become the primary challenge in May or June.

Sauer said the state has the infrastructure to scale up quickly and, at this point, should be able to vaccinate well north of 45,000 people a day. Sauer said hospitals are still not receiving a predictable supply of vaccine.

“We don’t know yet how much will be coming every week,” Sauer said. “If supply tripled next week that would be challenging.”

Dr. Shireesha Dhanireddy, an infectious-disease clinician at Harborview Medical Center who is helping lead vaccine-planning efforts for UW Medicine, said receiving a two- to three-week supply forecast would help with scheduling and with messaging campaigns to encourage more people into vaccine clinics. 

“Many places have infrastructure in place … ramping up isn’t the issue,” Dhanireddy said. “It’s challenging to get out messaging when we don’t have vaccine.”

With more vaccine supply and the infrastructure to administer vaccinations, the challenge for public-health officials could shift from trying to get everyone who wants a vaccine a shot to trying to persuade people who are hesitant to get vaccinated.

It is hard to know when a shift like this could happen because of various factors, Shah said, comparing vaccination efforts with a three-legged stool of supply, logistics and demand and that as supply increases and those wanting the vaccine are taken care of, the challenge could be bringing the skeptical in.

“This is something that public health recognizes … a significant challenge. And something that is going to really impact us as we think about getting to that goal of adequate vaccine coverage,” Shah said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Evan Bush contributed to this story.


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