IDAHO FALLS — Concerning coronavirus variants are likely spreading across Idaho, according to the state’s top testing official, Dr. Christopher Ball.
The COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed in the U.S. are believed to be effective against the virus variants circulating across Idaho. But the spread of more infectious and potentially severe strains intensifies the pressure to speed vaccine rollout.
“We are in a race against the variants with our vaccination program,” said Dr. Kathryn Turner, the state’s deputy public health researcher. “… Every single time that virus is transmitted, it has a chance to mutate. So, the faster we get people vaccinated, the better off we’ll be, the fewer variants we’ll have.”
So far, variants accounted for four cases in the more than 100 Idahoans who tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks after receiving their final vaccine. When people contract the coronavirus after being fully vaccinated, health officials call that a breakthrough case. Turner noted that breakthrough cases are rare, accounting for less than .03% of the roughly 320,000 fully vaccinated Idahoans.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s latest numbers show 95 coronavirus cases in Idaho have been identified as caused by variants of concern.
Ball, who directs the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories, said official state variant counts don’t tell the whole picture. Variant testing is limited in Idaho and across the nation. Labs are expanding capacity to conduct genomic sequence using virus test samples.
At Idaho’s state-run lab, RNA coronavirus test samples suspected to be variants — as opposed to the “wild” coronavirus that commonly circulated for much of the pandemic — are being sequenced, Ball said. Medical workers flag samples through clinical information that suggests someone caught a more infectious or severe strain, or through test sample information that shows signs of a variant, such as a deleted gene.
“It appears that for every region of the state, we’ve detected both the U.K. variant” and two variants first identified in California, Ball said. “We feel fairly comfortable based on the information that we have right now that those two variants of concern are probably circulating in most communities throughout the state.”
The same trend is happening nationally, Ball said.
Ball said the state is working with experts on a testing taskforce to determine how to publish information about where in Idaho variants are being found. The state lab and other national labs are sequencing samples from Idaho. Ball said the location isn’t clear for about half of the variant cases in Idaho.
State health Director Dave Jeppesen said new coronavirus cases are declining statewide since February, including in eastern Idaho, which still tops state charts for highest infection rates. But, he said, rising rates of hospitalization in recent weeks “leaves us concerned.”
More than 180,000 Idahoans have contracted coronavirus and 1,972 have reportedly died from COVID-19. Around 320,000 have received their final recommended COVID-19 vaccine dose, and nearly 172,000 people have received one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna two-dose shots.
Viruses mutate as they spread. Not all mutations are inherently concerning. But some may make the virus more contagious, deadlier or even resistant to things thought to provide some level of immunity, including both past infections and full vaccinations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors a handful of variants it deems concerning, which include two found in California, one found in South Africa, one found in Brazil and one found in the United Kingdom. In January, the CDC warned that the U.K. variant — now believed to be both more infectious and more deadly — would become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March. In mid-March, national infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said the U.K. variant likely accounted for up to 30% of virus cases, according to CNBC.