Don’t exhale yet.
The number of new daily cases has dropped precipitously — for now. It’s too early to know for certain how much of that is due to a true decline in new infections, rather than delayed reporting due to the holidays. But hospital admissions have also been declining, so it appears Idaho has achieved some level of temporary reprieve from COVID-19.
This is excellent news. You might be tempted to ease up and let your guard down. That would be a mistake. There is a new threat looming.
Viruses mutate over time. Most of these mutations aren’t very significant. But sometimes they are.
Unfortunately, a more dangerous version of the virus that first arose in Britain threatens to invade Idaho.
The British strain has been detected in both Colorado and California in recent days. It will inevitably come here, and may well already be here undetected. Scientists are still beginning to understand the new strain, which has tended to become the dominant strain of the virus where it has been introduced.
It becomes the dominant strain because it is far more infectious. An early study in Britain, which compares infection rates in areas where the new strain is dominant to areas where it not yet prevalent, estimates the new strain is between 50% and 74% more infectious than the disease we have been dealing with so far.
If the new strain were currently dominant here, cases would likely be increasing faster than at any time since before the lockdown rather than falling.
That greater infectiousness will have quite serious practical consequences.
The study estimates that getting the new strain under control in Britain will require an ongoing lockdown throughout the spring and summer, the closure of schools, and ramping up vaccine administration to 2 million doses per week (in population equivalent terms, this would mean vaccinating about 50,000 Idahoans per week; Idaho is receiving in the neighborhood of 10,000-20,000 doses per week now). There’s no obvious reason the impact would be smaller here.
These numbers are far from certain — the new strain could be not as bad, or worse, than the study estimates. More time and more studies will render a clearer picture.
But one thing is certain: The longer we can delay the spread of this new strain in Idaho, the better the outcome will be. There will be less economic damage. There will be less impact on our children’s educations. There will be fewer people sickened and lives lost.
So now isn’t the time to relax. It’s the time to redouble our efforts.
If you usually wear a mask in public, but let it slide now and again, always wear a mask. If it’s possible to work from home, but sometimes you go in for more social interaction, work from home. Try to make fewer trips to stores, and utilize delivery when you can. Avoid large social gatherings. Maintain distance. Do everything you can to avoid breathing on people or having them breathe on you.
Vaccinations are happening every day in Idaho. Every day, fewer and fewer of us are susceptible to infection. We shouldn’t fumble the ball in the red zone.