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Washington state boosts COVID-19 testing for variants, even with vaccinations on the rise

Washington is among the top states in the nation that tests viruses specifically for variants, which may spread more easily than the original virus.

SEATTLE — Washington's COVID-19 testing capabilities remain a critical part of managing the pandemic, even as vaccinations increase. Everyone in Washington ages 16 and older is now eligible for the vaccine.

Laboratories affiliated with the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) are increasing genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease, to detect ever-spreading variants.

Genomic sequencing, also known as genotyping, is a process that studies a virus's genetic makeup to detect mutations or variants.

Dr. Scott Lindquist, a state epidemiologist at the DOH, said Washington is among the top five states in the U.S. that are checking positive COVID-19 tests for specific variants.

About 1,000 COVID-19 tests are collected a day in Washington, according to Lindquist. The DOH currently genotypes about 5% of all positive COVID-19 tests — ahead of the national average of genotyping 1% to 2%, Lindquist said.

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"The last thing on my mind before I go to bed and the first thing when I wake up is COVID and concern about variants and our case count," said Lindquist.

Lindquist said testing is still important at this stage of the pandemic, even as vaccinations increase. People who have been vaccinated should still get tested if they feel symptoms, Lindquist said.

In the latest DOH report on variants released Wednesday, the B.1.427 and B.1.429 variants, commonly known as the "California variants," and the "UK variant," known as B.1.1.7, are already spreading at a rapid rate in Washington.

"The B.1.1.7 is doubling every two weeks," said Lindquist.

The Biden administration is pumping $1 billion to expand genomic testing efforts to fight variants. Washington will receive $5 million of that funding in May.

Genotyping for variants may also prove useful in detecting potential virus trends among breakthrough cases. Breakthrough cases happen when a fully vaccinated person becomes infected with the virus.