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Only 3.9% of COVID-19 tests in Spokane County are positive, but that rate is likely to rise

Despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Washington, the vast majority of people who get tested for the virus are negative. Especially in Spokane.

Of the 3,720 people in Spokane who met the rigorous screening protocols to even be tested, 3.9% have tested positive.

Across the state 74,798 Washingtonians have been tested, with 8% having the respiratory virus.

Some communities have seen much higher rates of residents testing positive, especially communities with limited amounts of test kits to go around, like in Benton County where 744 residents have been tested and 14.5% tested positive.

In King County, the epicenter of the outbreak statewide, 13.1% of residents tested have confirmed COVID-19.

Explaining why Spokane’s rate is so low is complicated.

It’s likely not due to flu season. The 2019-20 flu season in Spokane County is officially over, and it was not as heavy as it has been in past years in terms of hospitalizations or deaths. Even so, the flu has been more deadly than COVID-19 so far in the community.

There have been 334 hospitalizations and 15 deaths in Spokane County due to the flu this season. This is down from last flu season, when 442 people were hospitalized and 30 people died.

While flu season this year was light, several respiratory viruses have been circulating.

Respiratory illness data from the Spokane Regional Health District show that hospitals saw a spike in respiratory viruses, like RSV, metapneumovirus and enterovirus, in mid-March.

In other words, it’s not surprising that so many people are displaying symptoms synonymous with COVID-19.

“People are symptomatic, but not symptomatic with COVID,” Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said.

Despite respiratory viruses circling in the community, Lutz believes that with more testing, Spokane County will likely see a higher percentage of people who have COVID-19 than the current 3.9%.

“If we were to have liberalized testing to the point I would like, we’d see a 7-8% positivity rate,” he said.

In other counties with limited testing, many of the people tested are the sickest, often in hospitals, which can lead to higher positivity rates.

The state Department of Health database has not been updated since Saturday due to the massive increase in the volume of test results coming in from labs. The department must report both positive and negative tests back to county health departments, and since the vast majority of the results are negatives – about 92% – those numbers bogged down the state’s reporting system.

The state’s data system was not designed to receive negative results, just positive ones, State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy told reporters Tuesday.

So far, she said, the delay in data has not affected health officials’ response and decision-making, although there is still no set date when the system will be pushing daily updates again.

Before the system went down last week, Lofy said the state’s positivity rate appeared to be increasing, up to 8-9% on average statewide, suggesting an increase in COVID-19 activity statewide.

“The more people we test, the higher our numbers will be because we know there are people out there with mild illness that haven’t been diagnosed,” Lofy said.

As of Tuesday, there were 5,984 confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide, with 247 deaths.

In Spokane County, numbers continue to increase on a daily and even hourly basis, as the health district is still being notified of confirmed positive cases. Sometimes the data published by the state doesn’t neatly fit the county’s new data.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.