The more contagious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus has now become the dominant strain in Oregon — and is helping fuel a fourth surge in COVID-19 despite four out of every 10 Oregonians having received at least one dose of vaccine, public health officials say.
“As the governor has said repeatedly, this really is a race between vaccination and the spread of COVID, especially the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, which we believe now is a majority of cases in the state,” Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen told a group of lawmakers last week.
B.1.1.7 was first detected last December in the U.K. as it sent COVID-19 cases skyrocketing and some studies say led to an increase in more serious disease, including a 55% increase in death. A definite answer is still unclear, however, with at least two other studies finding B.1.1.7 didn’t result in more hospitalizations or severe cases.
Officials warned the American public in February that they expected B.1.1.7 to become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March, and one study found the variant was doubling in cases every 10 days. On April 7, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it had become the dominant strain in the U.S. — with some estimates pinning it at 50% more contagious than the previous most common strain in the country.
It took roughly two more weeks — after the CDC’s April 7 announcement — before Oregon officials concluded B.1.1.7 was accounting for most cases in Oregon, as well.
Oregon Health Authority spokeswoman Erica Heartquist said there’s a weeks-long lag in data reporting.
In the third week of March, B.1.1.7 accounted for 8% of cases analyzed for variants. A week later, that tripled to 24% and rose to 30% by the following week. The next week — April 4 to 10 — B.1.1.7 made up an eye-opening 53% of all cases where genomic sequencing testing had been done. That’s the latest data state officials have available.
Officials say they can’t extrapolate with certainty to say that by April 10 B.1.1.7 was accounting for 53% of all coronavirus cases in Oregon, because only about 3% of cases in Oregon are analyzed for variants. But the rapid rise in B.1.1.7 cases has led Oregon officials to feel confident in saying B.1.1.7 is dominating — surpassing strains first identified in California.
“This has very real implications for the surge that we appear to be entering now,” said Heartquist, in an email.
New cases over the past two weeks have been accelerating faster in Oregon than in any other state in the country — with a 63% increase in the past two weeks, according to The New York Times’ ranking of states. Oregon ranks 25th overall in new cases per capita over that same time period.
Over the past month, cases have ballooned from a daily average of 281 to 776 as of Saturday, a 176% increase. The number of hospitalized patients has grown from 109 a month ago to 295 as of Saturday, a 171% jump.
Reported deaths have held steady from a month ago, at three a day. But experts say when cases and hospitalizations increase, deaths often increase weeks later. It’s unclear, however, to what extent deaths might rise because so many of the Oregonians most at risk of dying — seniors — have already been vaccinated in the first waves of the vaccine rollout.
Besides variants such as B.1.1.7, experts agree that human behavior is feeding the surge.
“Basic public health interventions — masking, physical distancing and avoiding social gatherings — have never been more important,” Heartquist said.
— Aimee Green; [email protected]; @o_aimee