If the fight against COVID-19 comes down to a footrace between the vaccine rollout and the variants, both contestants now seem to be picking up momentum.
Washington State Department of Health officials brimmed with optimistic news on vaccination during a Thursday media briefing. Reviewing recent highlights:
- Some 1.3 million Washingtonians are fully vaccinated.
- Everyone 16 and older in Washington state — some 6.3 million people in total — will be eligible for vaccination on April 15, which state Health Secretary Umair Shah has taken to calling “Vax Day.”
- The state’s vaccine providers are administering some 56,000 vaccinations each day, according to the state’s seven-day average. The state is exceeding the goal it set early in winter to administer 45,000 doses each day.
- In all, the state has administered some 3.3 million doses as of March 29, and 83% of doses delivered to Washington have found a willing arm for injection.
- The federal government has established a mass vaccination site in Yakima to perform up to 1,200 vaccinations a day, according to Assistant Health Secretary Michele Roberts.
- Supply of vaccine, which for months has been the largest constraint for the state’s vaccine program, could meet the amount requested by vaccine providers as soon as next week.
- The state expects to receive some 460,000 doses next week — a record.
- A clinical trial of children between 12 and 15 years of age suggests the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could be available to kids as soon as this summer, Roberts said, citing a company announcement.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Shah said. “This is all good news”
Added Roberts: “We have a lot to celebrate.”
With the coronavirus, there always seems to be a “but.”
The possibility of a fourth wave of infections now looms large for health officials. Cases fell dramatically over winter, then plateaued, and now could be headed in the wrong direction.
“Disease transmission is increasing and we are seeing concerning signs.” Shah said. “Case counts are showing increases in King County, Pierce County, Snohomish County … .”
Shah said health officials believe people could be letting up on the measures known to prevent transmission, such as masking and distancing.
“We are not out of the pandemic until we’re out of the pandemic, meaning: Don’t let your guard down,” Shah said.
And coronavirus variants of concern — which could spread more easily, cause more harm, or more readily escape treatment or immunity by vaccination — now make up a majority of most recent cases to receive genomic sequencing by Washington laboratories.
The state stepped up its monitoring of coronavirus variants this winter and is now among the national leaders in sequencing, with some 9.5% of the cases confirmed through PCR testing in February receiving analysis.
The genomic sequencing provides a window into which strains, or lineages, of the virus have become more prominent. Lineages can become more prominent because of genetic advantages, through super-spreading events, or by chance.
A state report on variants released Thursday found that nearly a third of cases from January 17 to March 13 and sequenced in Washington were from coronavirus variants of concern.
During that time period, nearly 26% of cases resulted from two coronavirus variants first identified in California.
Scientists believe these two variants, named B.1.429 and B.1.427, are roughly 20% more transmissible, able to evade some therapeutics like antibody treatments and could cause some reduction in vaccine performance.
Further state analysis of sequencing data shows the overall proportion of cases caused by coronavirus variants of concern growing over time. In the most recent biweekly time period, variants of concern represented the majority of all cases.
The spread of variants has begun to impact treatment of COVID-19.
Last week, the U.S. halted treatment of coronavirus with solely bamlanivimab, a monoclonal antibody therapy offered by Eli Lilly and Company, citing the spread of variants. Bamlanivimab can still be used in conjunction with other monoclonal antibodies.
The state’s understanding of how these variants are spreading will become clearer over time as sampling becomes more representative of all testing performed in Washington state.
The B.1.1.7 variant, which scientists believe is about 50% more transmissible and could cause more severe COVID-19, also is growing in proportion, according to state data.
State epidemiologist Scott Lindquist said health officials will be watching during the coming weeks to see which variant emerges as the dominant lineage — and their primary concern.
If a fourth wave does materialize, many of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 will have some protection. The state’s COVID-19 data dashboard says about 73% of those 65 and older have received at least one shot.
State officials estimate about 330,000 people 65 and older remain unvaccinated; Shah urged them to go online to book a visit as soon as possible or call 1-800-525-0127 and do so by phone.
“We want to make sure we do everything we can to help them,” Shah said.