‘California’ COVID-19 variant detected in multiple Oregon counties, U.K. variant pops up in Bend
Christopher Markesino, right, incident commander, talks to Brian Terrett from Legacy Health outside the COVID-19 vaccination site at The Oregon Convention Center on January 27, 2021, in Portland. Brooke Herbert/The Oregonian
Researchers from two universities said Friday tests confirmed the first known cases of the so-called California strain of COVID-19 in Oregon and additional genomic sequencing showed more evidence of the U.K. strain in multiple parts of the state.
Oregon State University and Oregon Health & Science University officials confirmed their labs detected those strains through genomic sequencing in recent weeks.
As of earlier this week, the state had announced at least three positive cases involving the U.K. variant – with cases in Washington, Yamhill and Multnomah counties. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that variant is more easily transmissible but the two vaccines on the market – Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna – should be effective against it.
State health leaders and researchers disclosed the latest information about of the California strain during a Friday morning news conference that also included good news: confirmed cases, hospitalizations and – at least in the past week – COVID-19 related deaths are declining. Plus, the latest state modeling shows if current forecasts hold, the average case rate by mid-February could be 420 diagnosed cases per day.
That’s significantly lower than the records set last month, when daily cases eclipsed 2,000 on Dec. 4, and would return Oregon to case levels not seen since October.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist and health officer, said the forecast was more evidence that Oregonians are doing their best to adhere to public health guidelines – like washing hands, social distancing and wearing masks.
He noted that weekly cases had dropped 40% — from more than 1,100 on average to roughly 712, similar to declines across the country.
But Sidelinger noted 25 of the state’s 36 counties remain at extreme risk of spreading the virus. He said people have to keep their guard up because the new variants or people relaxing their social distancing could lead numbers to spike again.
“We believe available vaccines will prove effective against the variants,” Sidelinger said. “We must keep at it,” he said of the social distancing.
Officials at Oregon State confirmed the U.K. strain, which had previously only been detected in Portland, Yamhill County and Washington County, was present in Bend. The university sampled wastewater from that region Dec. 22 and tests confirmed the mutant strain Jan. 21. Federal officials have said it could be predominant in the United States by March.
“We will see COVID-19 variants rise and fall in abundance through our population over time and the rise of a new variant is not necessarily cause for alarm,” Dr. Melissa Sutton, Oregon Health Authority’s medical director of respiratory viral pathogens, said in a statement. “However, monitoring variants is critical to our understanding of disease transmission, disease severity, the ability to evade testing, vaccine effectiveness and treatment resistance.”
Oregon State separately confirmed the California variant’s presence in wastewater samples from Albany, Forest Grove, Klamath Falls, Lincoln City and Silverton. It also detected that strain in five individuals on the school’s Corvallis campus.
The university had conducted genetic sequencing on more than 1,100 samples, it said in a statement. The majority, some 936 samples, were conducted on wastewater samples, while the remainder were analyzed via the university’s COVID-19 testing program.
The university said the California strain was first detected last March.
“It does not have the mutation in the spike protein that makes the other variants so worrisome,” the school said in a statement, “but laboratory tests showed that its mutation may reduce antibody binding, which could affect the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine, though it’s unclear how closely the lab tests will mimic real-world infections.”
Oregon Health & Science University also detected the two California cases – one in Washington County detected from a sample taken in November, and a second from an undetermined location and originating from a late December sample.
“OHSU has also identified an isolated case – that shares similar mutations of L452R – in Wasco County,” spokesperson Tracy Brawley said in an email, using the genetic code now known colloquially as the California variant. “Watching this closely to determine impact.”
Another university lab just came online with genomic sequencing testing capabilities Friday, which could help the state speed up its testing capacity and further help determine where new COVID-19 variants may be popping up.
The University of Oregon said it conducted its first genomic sequencing analysis Friday on COVID-10 samples. “Results have not been fully analyzed to determine if any variants are within those samples,” Kay Jarvis, a university spokesperson said in an email. “The lab is capable and ready to assist the county and state in genomic testing if enlisted to do so.”
State health leaders and academics on Friday touted the importance of knowing what strains of the virus are spreading, especially as the state is still vaccinating people and remains months away from achieving any semblance of herd immunity. Their statements came more than a week after officials at the Oregon Health Authority said they did not know how many samples collected from Oregonians had been reviewed for the U.K. variant.
Researchers aren’t certain that the California variant poses any additional risk of heightened transmission or death, but they said detecting the variant and watching its spread is vital to understanding the mutation.
Meanwhile, Oregon’s latest modeling suggests transmission has fallen to just .81 new infections for every active infection, significantly less than the rate in early December when Gov. Kate Brown and others warned that the “hardest days of the pandemic still lie ahead.”
Patrick Allen, the state’s health authority director, said Oregon “remains ahead of most other states” in terms of the percent of its population who have been vaccinated – 15th nationally – and the percent of doses received that have been administered, at 23rd.
He also noted Oregon still has one of the nation’s lowest infection rates and death tolls in the nation.
‘California’ COVID-19 variant detected in multiple Oregon counties, U.K. variant pops up in Bend Christopher Markesino, right, incident commander, talks to Brian Terrett from Legacy Health