Nasty COVID variant arrives in Humboldt

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – ​Even as vaccine-induced optimism grows, Humboldt County’s health officer has said that “we’re not out of the woods yet” with COVID-19, which could spread and sicken people more severely if a newly-detected variant takes hold.

​At an April 28 news conference, Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman followed up on the county’s announcement earlier in the week that a coronavirus strain known as B.1.1.7 or the UK variant had been detected in a sample submitted for analysis in early April.

​So far the UK variant has only shown up in one sample but Hoffman said there’s suspicion of “many more” cases linked to the more transmissible and deadlier strain.

“The UK variant is the fastest-growing variant in California, currently,” he continued.

The county is awaiting genomic sequencing results of samples from the last few weeks for further insight on the variant’s presence.

Hoffman said the positive sample is not associated with travel or a large event, suggesting community spread. The UK variant has likely been spreading “weeks, if not months” prior to April.

He had begun his presentation by saying that there’s been “a bit of a change in COVID the last couple of weeks,” with rises in cases and hospitalizations.

More than 40 recent cases are linked to a “superspreader event” among the congregation of Eureka The Pentecostal Church and Hoffman said dozens more cases are “offshoots” from subsequent contacts.

The UK variant isn’t believed to be linked to the superspreader event but due to the speed of spread and spike in hospitalizations, Hoffman is “highly suspicious” that a high-risk variant strain is involved.

“With our case counts rising and our hospitalizations rising, it really emphasizes that we are definitely not out of the woods yet with COVID,” he said.

The UK variant apparently doesn’t have the heightened antibody resistance that would make vaccines less effective.

But other variants – including at least one that’s circulating in Humboldt County – have elevated resistance to antibodies.

The strategy is to achieve mass vaccination as quickly as possible, reducing the spread that promotes viral evolution and adaptation to immune pressure.

Vaccination is progressing but Hoffman said that “we still have large portions of our society who are vulnerable to this disease, because they either haven’t been vaccinated or maybe they were never exposed to it – or even, they were exposed to a different variant and a new exposure could continue to get them sick and allow them to spread it to others.”

​As of the end of last week, 43 percent of the county’s total adult population had gotten at least one dose of vaccine and 32 percent was fully vaccinated. Two-thirds of people older than 65 years – one of the most vulnerable groups – had been fully vaccinated.

​The county’s clinics will focus exclusively on giving second doses until June. Appointments for first doses are still available at pharmacies and through health care providers.

​As of April 31, the county’s case counts and testing positivity rate suggested a move from the state’s orange or moderate spread tier to the red or substantial tier.

​But Hoffman said it’s unlikely that the state will move the county into the higher risk tier, which would reinstate restrictions that are now downscaled or lifted.

​That’s due to a recent change in the way the state calculates risk. There are political implications, as Governor Gavin Newsom is facing a recall effort triggered by dissatisfaction over his prior restriction approach.

​Despite the uncertainties, the state and the county are eyeing June 15 as the date for a complete reopening and lifting of restrictions.

​The week that ended on April 30 saw the county’s percent testing positivity rate spike to 9.18 percent. There were 137 new COVID-19 cases logged for the week and an influx of hospitalizations.

​An April 29 county press release announced 17 new COVID-19 hospitalizations for the week and a subsequent hospitalization brought the county’s total to 161.  

​Total number of cases was at 3,852 but there were no new COVID-19 deaths last week and the county’s total remained at 38.

Arcata’s approach 

​Last week’s news conference panel included Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer, who said the city is focusing on “safely reopening” recreation facilities and programs.

​The Humboldt Crabs will have a season this year, she continued, and there’s collaboration in support of “a strong outdoor dining season as the weather warms up in Arcata.”

​There will also be audience events. Diemer said 15 venues have been identified for event certification.

​Five are in Arcata. Diemer said the venues will host both small and large events.

​There will also be an Oyster Festival but it will be done differently, with people placing orders and having them brought to their tables rather than visiting booths.

​“We’re really looking at how to limit contact and keep the event participant in one place,” said Diemer.

​Indoor weddings and parties are also in planning stages under California Department of Public Health guidelines, with increases in capacity for participants who are fully vaccinated.

​“A robust tourist season” is expected in the Arcata region, Diemer said, as “we saw our hotels fill quickly when travel restrictions within the state were lifted midway through the pandemic.”

​With the mid-June statewide reopening, “We are going to see a very full tourism season,” she continued, adding that doing things safely will “encourage those tourists to spend their money here.”



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