For months now, at least according to the Oregon Health Authority, there have been just a handful of cases of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19—the same variant currently bringing Europe to its knees—present in Oregon. Any trace of other variants that have popped up around the world is even more scarce, according to the health authority’s daily reports.
So, Oregonians could reasonably be excused for thinking that the state may have dodged the variant bullet, particularly with between about 20,000 and 35,000 Oregonians getting vaccinated daily.
But in just the last two weeks, as case numbers have ticked up after a long decline, a handful of local experts are raising concerns that B.1.1.7 in particular, a more infectious COVID strain that originated in England, is on the march statewide.
“Certainly, the prevalence of B.1.1.7 is higher than OHA is reporting,” says Brett Taylor, the director of the Center for Genome Research & Biocomputing at Oregon State University. “The first reason is it simply takes two to three weeks from identifying a positive individual to getting the genome sequenced and into the database. So, the database is always behind.”
Taylor works with the university’s TRACE project, which sequences COVID-19 samples from community wastewater and screens them for concerning variants. Evidence of B.1.1.7 has turned up in Grants Pass and McMinnville, he says. To better track the variants’ progress in the state, more genomic sequencing is underway in the state, including at the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory, which will be investigating specimens from people who have tested positive for the virus after traveling overseas, after previously recovering from COVID or post-vaccination.
Peter Graven, a professor of health economics at OHSU, whose weekly COVID forecasts have been influential in Gov. Kate Brown’s decisions to order previous lockdowns had projected a spike in February and March that never came, due in part, he said via email, to statewide adherence to mask-wearing and distancing rules, helped by lingering fears from a big case spike in November and December. In the last month, though, business restrictions have eased, including on indoor dining, and Graven thinks the state is primed for another big rise in cases.
“Unfortunately, the likelihood of (a) fourth wave in the next month is very likely. We are seeing fourth waves throughout the country now and the beginnings are already evident in Oregon,” Graven says.
More warnings came earlier this week from Michael Osterholm, who spoke to a legislative committee from his home state of Minnesota. Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who is on President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, told Oregon lawmakers that Oregon is most likely a month beyond the case spikes now unfolding in the Northeast and upper Midwest, and advised that the state should hold off on reopening schools, especially with some vulnerable senior citizens still not vaccinated, though some might be holding off due to vaccine hesitancy.
Still, Oregon has some factors in its favor, including the season: Warmer weather is coming, and outdoor transmission is far less likely than being in close proximity, indoors, in a poorly ventilated space. Though restrictions on businesses have eased, there are still capacity limits in most Oregon counties, and a statewide mask mandate in place. Guidelines for schools that are reopening are among the most detailed in the nation.
Furthermore, the state has so far avoided the overrun hospitals and staggering case rates that have hit many other parts of the country, with case counts and deaths that are among the lowest in the nation, per capita, and deaths here have declined more rapidly over the last two weeks (62 percent) than cases have increased (21 percent).
And Oregon—and the entire United States—is vaccinating its population at a much more rapid clip than in the European Union, where B.1.1.7 is circulating widely. In countries that have leapfrogged us in vaccinations, including Israel and the United Kingdom, case numbers have been plummeting, suggesting that the more people that can get their shots as soon as possible, the better off we’ll be, especially since all three vaccines currently in use in the United States are extremely effective against B.1.1.7. (More signs of hope: In both of those countries, B.1.1.7 was extremely prevalent, maybe more so than in the U.S., but rapid vaccination seems to be tamping down its spread.)
“Yes, variants are concerning, but the vaccines that we have appear to protect against the variants, and so I would encourage people to get vaccinated,” says Katie Sharff, an infectious disease specialist with Kaiser Permanente Northwest, in a live-streamed interview this week with Portland Monthly. “We really, really need to get vaccinated to essentially protect our community so that we don’t have these variants circulating unchecked, because [that] leads to more mutations.”