Across the northern tier of Whatcom County, there were substantially higher rates of coronavirus infections than in Bellingham during April, according to recent data from the county health department. From the above graph and other county data, one can determine that people living in the Blaine, Ferndale and Lynden subareas have experienced an average 435 new Covid cases per 100,000 individuals in the four-week period from April 3 to May 1. That’s nearly double the average 241 new cases per 100,000 citizens that Bellingham encountered during the same period. And these three areas saw a significant rise in late April. What can account for this striking geographical difference?
New county Covid-19 hospitalizations have also witnessed a substantial increase toward the end of the month, peaking at 7.5 per 100,000 on April 27 — which corresponds to 17 individuals newly hospitalized per week. And three Covid-19 deaths occurred between April 28 and May 6, according to the most recent state mortality data. (Note from the comment of Dick Conoboy below that a fourth Covid-19 death may have just occurred on May 8.)
These data all suggest that the B.1.1.7 variant coronavirus strain has indeed crept into the county from British Columbia, which has been experiencing a serious outbreak of that variant — and more recently the P.1 variant from Brazil — since mid-February. According to the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, the prevalence of such “variants of concern” has reached 80 percent in the Vancouver area. And the Fraser South health district immediately adjacent to the county, especially the city of Surrey, has experienced the highest case counts in the province.
From research in Great Britain, the B.1.1.7 variant is known to be at least 50 percent more contagious than the original strains — and is likely more deadly, especially for the elderly. This happens because it causes much higher loads of the virus, which makes it more difficult for our immune systems to fight off. That would explain the recent surge in Whatcom County cases and hospitalizations. It might also account for what may be a recent rise in Covid-19 deaths.
In early May, an emergency-room nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital commented on Facebook that “this wave of COVID we are seeing is by far the worst we’ve seen here in Bellingham.” Her comment dovetails with what would be expected from the B.1.1.7 and P.1 variants, whose higher virus loads can lead to more serious infections.
"This wave of Covid we are seeing is by far the worst we've seen in Bellingham."
And the B.1.1.7 variant is in fact spreading through Whatcom County, according to County Health Officer Greg Stern in a May 4 presentation to the County Council. Indeed, from the May 5 Washington state report on variant viruses, the level of B.1.1.7 has begun surging in the County. At least 98 cases of this variant had occurred by mid-April — the third highest per-capita level in the state, after King and Franklin Counties. And that’s only among the limited samples that county health departments chose to have “sequenced” for characteristic mutations that would identify them as variants.
“The dominant strain in Washington is B.1.1.7,” observed Stern at the May 4 council meeting. According to the state Department of Health report issued the next day, it so far accounts for 46.7 percent of the strains in virus samples collected statewide from April 4 to April 17. The P.1 variant strain accounted for another 11.2 percent. Those percentages were rising rapidly then and are surely higher now.
So the question naturally arises: “How are these variants entering the county?” And my answer: most likely from British Columbia.
Although most vehicle traffic from Canada has been restricted by the US Border Patrol (and will continue to be so limited at least until May 21), truckers have been allowed entry for valid trade and transport purposes. They are likely to fuel up at the truck stops in Blaine and Ferndale, given the comparative prices of diesel fuel in Canada and the United States. They are also likely to eat at restaurants there during these stops, which is awfully hard to do while wearing a mask. That would provide easy paths of entry for the variant viruses known to be afflicting British Columbia. And it helps explain the late-April case increases in areas along I-5.
There are others who are being allowed in, including returning US citizens, students and people who have valid business purposes to enter. But there has not been any noticeable rise in cases at Western Washington University, which totals under 100 cases. And the Bellingham per-capita rate remains among the lowest in the county.
Another factor is resistance to vaccination, which Stern and Department of Health Director Erika Lautenbach emphasized at the May 4 meeting. “We have seen a slowdown in vaccinations,” she told council members. “There are people we’ve seen in hospitals that are getting very sick who have not been vaccinated.”
When asked who was reluctant and why, Stern replied: “People concerned about not trusting the government and health department.” He also said that there was a lot of misinformation circulating about Covid-19 being nothing to worry about.
“There are people we've seen in hospitals that are getting very sick who've not been vaccinated.”
— Whatcom County Health Director Erika Lautenbach
That is what occurred in the San Juan Island outbreak in early April. One major vector of that event was a mother and son who did not take the coronavirus seriously and thought he just had a “bad cold.” So at least six new cases resulted from an April 2–3 sleepover that he participated in.
One can speculate — and I will — that there is a greater concentration of Covid-19 deniers and vaccine avoiders in the more northerly reaches of Whatcom County, given the different political persuasions there. That would offer fertile breeding grounds for variant strains sneaking across the border. If the county health department were to publish vaccination rates by subarea, as they do for confirmed cases, we would know the answer, one way or the other.
Readers are welcome to add their own observations.
Fortunately, the two vaccines widely used in Whatcom County have proved to be highly effective against the B.1.1.7 variant. In large-scale studies in Britain and Israel, the Pfizer vaccine proved to be almost equally effective against this variant as it was against the original strains for which it was developed last year. Indications are that the same is true for the Moderna vaccine, which uses a similar “messenger-RNA” technology to coax immune systems into producing antibodies against the deadly coronavirus. Less is known about these vaccines' effectiveness against the P.1 variant strain because large-scale studies have yet to be done.
The reasons to get vaccinated against the coronavirus far outweigh any putative dangers of doing so.
Thus those who have already been fully vaccinated using these vaccines can rest assured that they will have about 95 percent immunity to the B.1.1.7 variant, too — and in almost every case will have much less severe symptoms if they do become infected. And they will greatly reduce their chances of becoming an asymptomatic carrier and passing the disease along to family, friends and business associates. The reasons to get vaccinated against the coronavirus far outweigh any putative dangers of doing so.
But will reason ultimately prevail?
BC Centre for Disease Control, “BC COVID-19 Data,” May 6, 2021.
Michael Riordan, “A Variant Virus Outbreak in Whatcom County?”, Northwest Citizen, March 12, 2021.
Michael Riordan, “The Fourth Wave Is Here,” Orcas Currents, April 20, 2021.
Washington State Department of Health, “SARS-CoV-2 Sequencing and Variants in Washington State," May 5, 2021.
Whatcom County Health Department, “Whatcom County COVID-19 Data Dashboard: Additional Data,” May 4, 2021.