Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – As coronavirus diversifies into more robust strains, Humboldt County’s health officer has said that vaccination will likely become a yearly necessity.
That prediction comes as a new variant unique to Humboldt County has emerged from a recent outbreak at the Granada Rehabilitation & Wellness Center in Eureka.
The outbreak infected dozens of residents and staff at the long term care center, killing 13 patients.
The new strain that emerged was described in a February 18 county press release as a “never before seen COVID-19 variant with increased transmissibility.”
According to the press release, evidence suggests the Humboldt variant was contained within the Granada outbreak and “there is no indication it has spread to the broader community.”
But that’s not the only variant that’s been detected in the county. Late last month, the county announced a single-sample detection of a variant known as L452R, which is believed to have originated in Denmark but has also been found in other countries, states and California counties.
Named for a spike protein mutation that may impart vaccine resistance, L452R is linked to several large outbreaks in the San Jose area and scientists have described it as a quickly growing strain that also appears to be more transmissible.
In a February 18 media availability video, county Public Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman said that in the latest sampling round, 13 more L452R infections were detected.
“Which is not a surprising number considering that statewide, this is now becoming the dominant variant that they’re finding in genetic sequencing,” he continued.
On the strain linked to the Granada outbreak, Hoffman said it has a spike protein mutation known as N501Y, which also appears in global Variants of Concern. That term refers to variants that are being monitored due to gaining advantages that facilitate spread.
But Hoffman said that “in and of itself, that single mutation is not considered a variant of concern.”
He said that 22 percent of the county’s positive COVID-19 samples have been submitted for genomic sequencing, which is being done by the CZ Biohub non-profit genomic sequencing consortium.
Hoffman reiterated that the newly-detected variant hasn’t radiated into the greater community. “Through our investigations and contact tracing, we can really feel confident that there were no lines of transmission from the case at Granada,” he said.
Asked in the video about permanent presence of the virus and the likelihood of annual vaccination, Hoffman said that “time will tell and studies will tell, but I think that’s probably likely.”
As variants continue to be detected in the state, new coronavirus cases are declining, a trend that’s beginning to be seen in Humboldt.
Last week’s new case count dropped to 85, although a county announcement noted that testing was reduced due holiday lab closure.
As of the end of last week, the county’s total number of COVID-19 cases was 3,067. Last week saw six more hospitalizations, bringing the total to 130. There were no additional deaths last week and the county’s total stood at 32.
Cases in the county are expected to trend downward in the near future and moving out of the state’s purple or widespread risk designation could happen this week.
“Things are looking better overall for the county,” Hoffman said in a Feb. 17 video. “The case counts are down, the test positivity rates are down and we met the equity metric, which is one of the key things for us to probably get out of the purple tier and into the red tier.”
The red tier still connotes “substantial risk” but the lowered threat level lessens some restrictions on business and social activity, and allows school re-openings.
Viral spread has been cyclical, however, and Hoffman recently warned that another surge – potentially “even bigger” than the one that’s subsiding – is likely due to circulation of variants.
Hoffman said his department and the county’s Public Health Lab will work hard to detect and trace viral spread but personal behavior is a crucial aspect of reducing it.
“If we’re following the guidance, if we’re masking and distancing, we have less virus transmission in our community,” he continued. “If we’re not traveling, bringing in new viruses from the outside, those are all things that will determine whether or not a variant of concern comes into our county and spreads easily.”