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Covid-19 transmission rates are rising in northwest Washington

Covid-19 transmission rates are rising in northwest Washington

By Joshua Kornfeld

The latest Covid-19 variants “FLiRT” and LB.1 are causing a wave of infections nationwide this summer, but Covid-19 remains under control in northwest Washington.

According to Yale Medicine, the FLiRT strains are subvariants of omicron that began spreading in April. LB.1, which is similar to the FLiRT variants but has an additional mutation, began spreading in June.

According to Yale Medicine, the FLiRT variants now account for more than 60 percent of Covid-19 cases in the U.S., up from five percent of cases in March. The LB.1 strain accounted for 17.5 percent of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. at the beginning of the summer.

In Washington state, emergency department visits by Covid-19 patients have been steadily increasing since mid-May, but that number remains below the threshold for significant transmission, as the latest data shows that Covid-19 accounted for only 1.7 percent of all emergency department visits statewide between June 23 and 29.

Transmission rates are considered significant when more than three percent of emergency room visits result in a Covid-19 diagnosis. At that point, health facilities can reinstate mask requirements. Northwest Washington has not seen significant transmission rates since late January.

CDC spokeswoman Sharleta Stamps wrote in an email to The Northern Lights that there is no evidence that any of the newer variants cause more severe disease.

“CDC is tracking all SARS-CoV-2 variants, including KP.2 (and other ‘FLiRT’ variants that have similar mutations) and KP.3, and is working to better understand their potential public health impact,” Stamps wrote.

Between June 23 and 29, 18 people with Covid-19 occupied intensive care beds in Washington state, more than influenza and RSV combined, according to the latest data from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) Viral Disease Dashboard.

Vaccinations and tests

According to the state vaccination dashboard, about 20 percent of Whatcom County residents were up to date with their Covid-19 vaccinations as of July 2.

“New variants tend to better evade immunity from previous infections or vaccinations, and immunity also wanes with a longer period of time since the last vaccination,” wrote Dr. Amy Harley, health officer at Whatcom County Health and Community Services (WCHCS), in an email to The Northern Lights“People aged 65 and over who have not received an additional dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at least 4 months after their last dose should consider immediate vaccination.”

Ron Warner, WCHCS press secretary, wrote in an email that people can get free Covid-19 tests through a kiosk in the parking lot of the WCHCS building, 509 Girard Street in Bellingham. The kiosk offers both rapid anti-Genetic testing and laboratory-based PCR tests are available to the public 24 hours a day. People are instructed to return PCR tests at the kiosk, and results are provided approximately 48 hours later.

The DOH recommends that people do the following to protect themselves from Covid-19: get vaccinated against Covid-19, stay home if you feel unwell, wash your hands frequently, and consider wearing a mask in crowded public spaces.

Report results

Andrew Weitz is a program director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and has worked on makemytestcount.org (MMTC), an NIH website where people can report the results of their at-home Covid-19 tests.

“One of the things I like to tell people is that it’s just as important to report negative results as it is to report positive results, because that positivity rate tells you the percentage of people who are tested at home and are positive,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons we called it ‘Make my test count,’ because every test counts.”

Since the website launched in November 2022, the team has collected 240,203 tests, Weitz said.

“We’re still learning how to use it, how to get actionable insights from it, and how to use it for public health surveillance and public health interventions,” he said. “The more data we have, the better we can figure out how to do that.”

In the past, when people received free Covid-19 tests through Covid.gov — an initiative that has since been discontinued — they were asked to report the results to the MMTC. Since that discontinuation, Weitz said, reporting resources may no longer be made available to the public.

“I think the most important question for someone is, ‘Why would I do this?'” he said. “And my answer to that is, do you support this new cause that is helping our nation understand how to better utilize this new type of testing data, home testing, that is really here to stay.”

Weitz said the NIH has no plans to close the site and hopes to expand testing to include flu and STI testing. Reporting test results is optional, he said, and those who choose to report can determine how much information they share with health authorities.

“We firmly believe that a permanent platform must be created where the public can voluntarily share their results,” he said.

The Northern Lights reached out to the Washington State Nurses Association to hear about the experiences of health care workers, but the union declined to comment, fearing disciplinary action. The union represents nurses at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham.

For more current respiratory disease data in Washington state, visit the DOH dashboard at bit.ly/460lIdU. For more information on vaccines, visit the DOH Vaccine Finder at bit.ly/3XRWWuv, visit the WCHCS website at bit.ly/4cyTHN4, or call 360/778-6100.