King County Warns Variant Strain Could Stir Coronavirus ‘Volcano’

SEATTLE — King County’s health officer is urging a renewed community effort to tamp down coronavirus transmission to help limit the potentially devastating effects of variant strains spreading elsewhere, which appear to be more infectious.

Dr. Jeff Duchin hosted his weekly coronavirus briefing Friday afternoon, which included some good news on recent declines in case counts, hospitalizations and deaths in the state’s most populous county. However, Duchin warned against complacency, as vaccine supply continues to be inadequate and concerns that the variant strain could be detected locally “any day now.”

“We are used to living with real volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, and right now we’re also living in the shadow of a COVID-19 volcano,” Duchin said. “We need to expect the coronavirus equivalent of a Mount St. Helens-like eruption sometime in the next few months. That’s because a more transmissible strain can cause a viral eruption in infections, hospitalizations and deaths that can overwhelm our hospitals.”

Despite the looming threat of a more infectious outbreak, Duchin said, it can be defeated using the same proven public health defenses that have been encouraged for months.

“This virus has been working out; it’s gotten faster and more fit,” Duchin said. “We need to fight smarter and harder to beat it, but we can and must beat it down.”

The more contagious variant, which first swept through the UK, has now been found in at least 20 states, and King County should expect it will eventually become widespread locally, Duchin said. But, unlike the early days of the pandemic when Washington was the first to experience an outbreak, this time, residents have an early warning and time to prepare.

“We should take a very fresh look at how we can do better at taking all possible precautions in our personal and social lives, and workplaces and wherever people gather,” Duchin said. “This means decreasing nonessential activities outside the home, wearing a well-made — and that means two layers or more — snug-fitting mask whenever around people from outside your household. Improve ventilation indoors and in workplaces, avoid crowded indoor spaces and places with poor ventilation as much as possible. Socialize and do as much as possible outdoors, keep 6 feet of distance at a minimum, especially indoors, and wash hands frequently.”

Some welcome news, Duchin said, is that King County’s “COVID-19 rollercoaster” is back on a downward trajectory, with case counts falling since about Jan. 9 after an upswing in the wake of the holidays. However, activity remains high, with about 360 cases reported each day on average over the past week — a figure cut in half since early December. The rate of hospitalizations and deaths have also fallen, with about 120 COVID-19 patients admitted to King County hospitals in the last seven days, and an average of five deaths per day.