New COVID-19 variant hits Washington State, but Washingtonians know how to handle it.


Today, almost a year to the day after the very first US case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Washington, we learned that the COVID-19 variant that has been spreading in London, has arrived here too.

The UW Medicine Virology Lab found that two people in Snohomish County who knew they had COVID-19, actually have this new variant. So far it seems like this variant is pretty rare in Washington, although it is likely that there are other people here who also have this variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that this new variant will be the most common strain in the coming months.

What, exactly, is a new variant? Viruses are constantly changing. Part of the reason we need to get flu shots every year is because the influenza virus changes slightly. Similarly, the virus that causes COVID-19 is constantly changing. When enough changes happen, it starts to act a little different and we track it as a new variant. We expect new variants of a virus to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and throughout the world.

Does it have a name? Well, yes. It’s known as B.1.1.7 or SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01. That’s why we usually just say “new variant.”

If you get COVID-19, does it make a difference what variant you have? Not for you! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no conclusive evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death. But, this variant does spread more easily and quickly than other variants, so we all need to be extra careful to do our best to protect each other.

Does the vaccine work on the new variant? So far, it looks like it does. This is great news, but it is a topic that is still being studied, so there may be more information soon.

How do we protect ourselves from the new variant? By doing all the same things we’ve been doing, as consistently as we possibly can:

  • Wear a mask, even with people you see regularly and in your smallest social circles;
  • Keep gatherings outside whenever possible;
  • Avoid any social gatherings indoors, but if participating, wearing a mask and ensuring windows and doors are open to maximize ventilation;
  • Wear a mask while in the car with other people, including with family who do not live in your household;
  • Wash hands often, not touching your face, and carrying hand sanitizer for use when water and soap are not available;
  • Stay home if you are sick or if you have been exposed to COVID-19; and,
  • Get tested for COVID-19 if you have symptoms or were exposed to someone who tested positive.

Practice compassion. Viruses mutate inside your body. Preventing yourself and others from getting COVID-19 also helps to prevent new variants from arising.