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Health and Medicine

U.K. Variant Drives COVID Spike In Humboldt

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A dangerous coronavirus variant is spreading rapidly in Humboldt County, where younger people are getting sick with COVID-19 more often and more severely.

County health officer Dr. Ian Hoffman recently reported that a variant called B.1.1.7, known as the U.K. variant, is causing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases that’s on par with winter surge levels.

The variant has been present in the state and the U.S. for months. But detections of it have been at low levels and until this month, there were none in Humboldt County.

But as restrictions were loosened in early April, B.1.1.7 was covertly spreading. And during a May 4 update to Humboldt’s Board of Supervisors, Hoffman said that “now the evidence is clear; B.1.1.7 was here and it has been here and now we are seeing the effects of a more contagious, more virulent form of the coronavirus.”

He reported that the county has seen an increase of cases “consistent with what we saw during the winter surge months” and recent hospitalizations “rival the worst weeks yet of the pandemic for Humboldt County.”

Humboldt’s COVID-19 case rate is now 13 per 100,000 residents, the second-highest rate in the state.

Younger people are getting sicker, Hoffman continued, and the number of COVID-19 cases among younger age groups has jumped.

Once accounting for only one to two percent of cases, residents under 19 years old now make up 20 percent of cases.

Residents ages 20 to 29 years old comprise the county’s largest case demographic, at about 23 percent.

The rapid rise in hospitalizations was announced in a May 3 county press release, with 17 residents hospitalized the previous week. They included “several who were younger than previously seen hospitalized, including one child in the 10-19 age group,” according to the press release.

The U.K. variant is 50 percent more contagious and causes more severe illness than other coronavirus strains. Hoffman told county supervisors that the need for serious levels of treatment have led to patients being transported out of Humboldt County more than any other time in the pandemic.

The U.K. variant is compounding a case spike that began in mid-April.

In an April 28 press conference, Hoffman said that over 40 cases were linked to a “superspreader event” among the congregation of Eureka The Pentecostal Church and dozens more cases were “offshoots” from subsequent contacts.

The U.K. variant isn’t linked to the superspreader event but due to the speed of spread and spike in hospitalizations, Hoffman said he’s “highly suspicious” that another high-risk variant strain is involved.

“With our case counts rising and our hospitalizations rising, it really emphasizes that we are definitely not out of the woods yet with COVID,” he said.

Hoffman says that none of the recently-hospitalized residents had been vaccinated. About 40 percent of Humboldt’s adults are fully-vaccinated.

The variant-driven surge is happening as Humboldt and the rest of the state prepare for a mid-June reopening. Events and festivals of all types are in planning stages.

“The stronger public health measures that we used before the vaccination effort will not be possible any longer,” Hoffman said during the supervisors update.

With confidence in vaccines, Hoffman and other public health officials are still looking forward to “a great summer full of COVID-safe events.”

As of May 7, Humboldt’s total COVID-19 case confirmations reached 3,915, with 167 hospitalizations and 39 deaths.