All the COVID-19 variants are here, Idaho. What does that mean for daily life?

‘We’re in a race against these guys. We really need to get everybody vaccinated.’

A patient at a St. Luke's vaccination clinic receives the COVID-19 vaccine.

Even public health experts have a hard time keeping track of the letters and numbers.

There’s B.1.1.7 and P.1 and a few others of the “B” lineage — and, now, B.1.617 and its babies, B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3.

They’re a growing crop of coronavirus variants that have emerged around the globe, usually discovered amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in a certain location.

Meanwhile, things are changing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer says masks are necessary in most places if you’re vaccinated against COVID-19. The city of Boise just lifted its mask mandate and crowd-size limits on Friday.

And now, with variants spreading in Idaho, what do you need to know?

Which variant is the worst? Is it here?

Nobody knows which one is the worst. They’ve all emerged at different times, in different places. Those outbreaks hit different public health systems, with different access or no access to vaccines. That makes it hard to compare death rates, hospitalizations or the level of vaccination needed to reach herd immunity.

So far, though, all the variants that public health officials are monitoring have three things in common:

  • They mutated in ways that make them better at infecting people.
  • They have all arrived in Idaho.
  • COVID-19 vaccines work against them, when it comes to preventing death and severe illness.
Idaho Deputy State Epidemiologist Kathryn Turner
Idaho Deputy State Epidemiologist Kathryn Turner says the world is “in a race” to vaccinate enough people to prevent a coronavirus mutation that beats the vaccine. (Courtesy of Idaho Department of Health and Welfare)

“There are variants circulating, and some of them are more transmissible than others. But we have all heard the messages about how to prevent the virus, or any of the (variants) from being transmitted,” said Idaho Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Turner.

The state has identified more than 400 cases of Idahoans infected with the variants of concern.

“That’s what we need to focus on, rather than focusing on what might be circulating,” she said. “We already know how to stop the circulation, and people just need to get vaccinated so we can stop additional mutations from occurring. That’s the big picture.”

Variants have been here for a while. Why isn’t Idaho seeing a surge?

It has been nearly three months since the first highly transmissible variant was confirmed in Idaho. On its tail were more and more cases, and more variants, discovered in wastewater as well as in samples taken from Idahoans’ noses.

Neighboring states Washington and Oregon are now in their fourth wave. Why isn’t Idaho seeing the same crisis in hospitalizations and cases?

What happens in neighboring states tends to happen in Idaho, on a delay. So as cases have spiked in places surrounding Idaho, public health officials are paying attention.

“We’re keeping our eye out on it, and we are bracing ourselves, because we do have a relatively — if you look at us relative to other states — we do have a relatively lower vaccination uptake,” Turner said.

Emily, 12, gets the Pfizer vaccine from a nurse at a Primary Health Medical Group clinic in the Treasure Valley
Emily, 12, gets the Pfizer vaccine from a nurse at a Primary Health Medical Group clinic in the Treasure Valley on May 12, 2021. (Courtesy of Primary Health Medical Group)

More urbanized parts of Idaho have a higher COVID-19 vaccination rate than do rural communities, she noted. The state has begun offering support to public health districts and health care providers to “go to the people with the vaccine, rather than have them come to the vaccine,” she said.

Turner noted that neighboring states Oregon and Washington “also have different restrictions than we do. And so it complicates any picture.” When those states eased restrictions earlier this year, did people change their behaviors drastically without being vaccinated, for example?

“It’s not like apples and oranges, but it’s like apples and pears, you know?” she said. “Similar, but just different enough that we can’t always predict what we’re going to see based on what they’re doing.”

Is it possible that variants were spreading in Idaho, before the state ramped up the intensive gene-sequencing process required to spot them?

“I think that’s entirely possible. We know that not every virus is being sequenced,” said Kimberly Link, the communicable diseases program manager at Boise-based Central District Health. “The way the surveillance is set up, we’re getting a systematic glimpse. But it’s entirely possible that things are going on that we’re not aware of. … We’re seeing variants come out of the water testing that we didn’t see in the clinical samples.”

Idaho’s vaccine uptake may determine our fate with the variants

With Idaho lagging the nation in vaccination rates, and public health restrictions easing, will these easier-to-catch variants get the better of us?

That’s something Link hopes won’t happen.

“For those who are unvaccinated, we have a riskier situation than what we did six or eight months ago, in terms of what happens when you’re exposed to COVID,” she said. 

And while the vaccines currently work to neutralize the virus — even the newly discovered variants — that won’t necessarily always be true.

Every time a person gets infected, it gives the virus another opportunity to mutate in a way that can give it an “escape” function — a slight change in its profile that makes our bodies incapable of shutting it down before it infects our cells.

“We’re in a race against these guys; we really need to get everybody vaccinated,” Turner said.

Link said that CDC and local public health guidelines are based on what’s happening now, not on what could happen in the future.

At “some point down the road, we may have a variant that comes around that is able to get around the vaccine, and we may have to change course,” she said.