A concerning coronavirus variant has been identified in two Thurston County residents that tested positive for the virus last month.
The Washington state Department of Health notified Thurston County Public Health and Social Services of the two cases of the B. 1 .351 variant on Friday, March 19, according to a county news release. The two residents tested positive on Feb. 22 but it took three to four weeks for laboratory genome sequencing to confirm the variant.
The B. 1 .351 variant, which originated in South Africa, is more concerning because it may be more transmissible and current vaccines may be less effective against it, said health officer Dimyana Abdelmalek during a county meeting Tuesday.
"There may be some reduced efficacy from the vaccines against the strain, however all of the available vaccines do have a significant amount of protection against it," Abdelmalek said.
She said there is no current evidence this variant increases disease severity, but there is some evidence that antibody treatments are less effective against it. At least 194 strains of the B. 1 .351 variant have been found across the nation, according to the release.
A virology lab at the University of Washington identified the first case of this variant in Washington state on Jan. 29 in King County, the release read. Since then, the state has confirmed 10 cases of this variant across King, Yakima and Thurston counties.
"At this time, state and local health officials are unsure if these Thurston County cases are linked to others in Washington, to out-of-state travel, or if this strain is circulating further in the community," the release read.
Abdelmalek said the best way to stop coronavirus variants is to limit transmission. To that end, the county recommends residents continue to abide by guidance such as wearing a mask, washing hands often, physical distancing and limiting gatherings.
"Just follow the things we've been doing since the beginning," Abdelmalek said. "(They) are just as important today as they were over a year ago when we started this mission."
Though transmission rates have decreased in recent weeks, the county is advising residents to remain cautious even if they are already vaccinated. As the county continues to ease restrictions, there may be more opportunities for transmission, said Public Health and Social Services Department director Schelli Slaughter in the release.
"While we are very encouraged our cases have been low and trending down over the last month, knowing a variant of concern, such as B. 1 .351, being detected in Thurston County is a stark reminder that this pandemic isn't over yet and we shouldn't let our guard down too soon," Slaughter said.