Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – A dangerous coronavirus variant is now dominant in Humboldt County, whose COVID-19 case rate is the second-highest in the state and whose children are getting sick more often and more severely.
A variant called B.1.1.7, loosely known as the UK variant, has been present in the state for months. But detections of it have been at low levels and there were none in Humboldt County.
But the variant has been spreading. During a May 4 update to the Board of Supervisors, Public Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman said that “now the evidence is clear – B.1.1.7 was here and it has been here and now we are seeing the effects of a more contagious, more virulent form of the coronavirus.”
He reported that the county has seen an increase of cases “consistent with what we saw during the winter surge months” and recent hospitalizations “rival the worst weeks yet of the pandemic for Humboldt County.”
Younger people are “getting sicker,” Hoffman continued. He estimated that 22 percent of COVID-19 cases are among children now and the percentage used to be one to two percent.
Despite warnings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that B.1.1.7 would be a dominant coronavirus strain by now, the state loosened its tier system of restrictions because a peak in cases and hospitalizations had declined.
In early April – when B.1.1.7 continued to covertly spread in Humboldt – the county was dropped from the red or substantial risk tier and moved to the orange or moderate risk tier. With sign off from local health officials, restrictions were lifted accordingly.
But the risk was still substantial and B.1.1.7 proceeded to spread broadly. “We know that B.1.1.7 is everywhere in Humboldt County and is very likely the most dominant strain locally now,” Hoffman told supervisors.
The county remains in the orange tier and Hoffman recently said that it’s unlikely to be moved back in the red tier due to the change in the way the state calculates its risk tiers. During the short history of the pandemic, decreases from peaks of cases have been seen as cause for easing restrictions, with higher peaks ensuing.
Coronavirus has diversified beyond original expectations and new, fitter variants continue to emerge. Hoffman suggested that B.1.1.7 isn’t the ultimate variant Humboldt will deal with.
He told supervisors that the strain will be “the driver of infections in the coming weeks and months until another potentially more infectious strain comes along to replace it.”
Booster vaccine shots will be needed “if variants come up that could make vaccination less effective,” Hoffman said.
The UK variant is 50 percent more contagious than other strains and “moving swiftly,” he continued. The county’s case counts have risen from two per 100,000 people to 13 per 100,000 and there are “more hospitalizations than we have seen in the past with similar outbreaks.”
In addition to cases, the rising hospitalizations and ICU admissions are affecting “a much younger demographic than in the past” and the need for more serious levels of treatment have led to patients being transported out of Humboldt County “more than any other time in the pandemic.”
Hoffman gave familiar advice on dealing with COVID-19 risk. “Masking, distancing and vaccination still work,” he said. “Avoiding crowds and gatherings reduces your risk of exposure.”
Testing is also key, he added, and has decreased despite the county’s high capacity for it.
About 40 percent of Humboldt’s adults have been vaccinated and Hoffman said the infections are happening among the unvaccinated.
None of the recently-hospitalized residents were vaccinated, he said, adding, “That’s the power of vaccine.”
The variant-driven “dramatic turning of the tide” is happening as Humboldt and the rest of the state prepares for a mid-June reopening. Events and festivals of all types are in planning stages.
“The stronger public health measures that we used before the vaccination effort will not be possible any longer,” Hoffman said.
With confidence in vaccines, Hoffman and other public health officials are still looking forward to “a great summer full of COVID-safe events.”
Eighty-six new COVID-19 cases were confirmed last week, with 20 of them logged on a single day, May 7.
That brings the county’s total case count to 3,935. There were four COVID-19 hospitalizations and one death, of an elderly person, bringing those totals to 165 and 39 respectively.
On May 7, the county announced that 40 local COVID-19 samples have been identified as B.1.1.7. The variant was “present in a majority of sequenced samples, indicating that it is widespread locally.”