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Spokane County tops 4,000 coronavirus cases, but daily count may be plateauing

Spokane Regional Health District and volunteer nurses conduct curbside COVID-19 testing in the parking lot at Holmes Elementary School, July 7, 2020, in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

As case counts appear to be at least plateauing in Spokane County, Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said he was “cautiously optimistic” those trends will continue.

At the end of July, Spokane County was averaging about 75 new cases a day. The first three days of August, the county averaged about 60 cases a day.

“Although we continue to see a trend up, the modeling data over the last few weeks has been encouraging,” Lutz said.

Spokane County crested the 4,000-case mark on Monday, with 4,002 total cases confirmed to date. Hospitalizations and deaths continue to accelerate locally, as well. Over the weekend, seven more Spokane County residents died from COVID-19, meaning in less than two weeks, 19 county residents have died from the virus.

Hospitalizations in Spokane County hospitals are the highest to date during the pandemic. There are 72 patients currently hospitalized, and 44 of them are Spokane County residents. Over the weekend, the county confirmed 90 new cases on Saturday, 48 on Sunday and 59 on Monday.

The Panhandle Health District, which serves much of North Idaho, confirmed 93 new cases over the weekend and three new deaths from COVID-19. Twenty-eight North Idaho residents were hospitalized from COVID-19 as of Monday.

Data from the Spokane Regional Health District show that disproportionate virus activity now includes 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds in the county, whom make up 56% of confirmed cases. When it comes to hospitalizations and deaths, however, the opposite is true. All but two of the COVID-related deaths in county residents have been over the age of 50. Similarly, the vast majority of hospitalizations are in residents over the age of 50. In other words, despite a lot of COVID activity in younger populations, older residents are still getting the sickest, requiring hospitalization.

Health officials continue to encourage residents to adhere to mandates for masking, small group gathering and physically distancing. Realistically, new social norms, like wearing face coverings, will be in place until there is a vaccine or herd immunity, Lutz said.

“Until we have an adequate vaccine and adequate herd immunity the NPIs – non-pharmaceutical interventions like face coverings – physical distancing will be part of the new norm,” Lutz said. “So you will definitely be seeing wearing face coverings throughout the remainder of 2020, and until we have a vaccine or significant herd immunity, it will be part of the recommendations.”

With Spokane Public Schools announcing it will begin the school year with distance learning only, Lutz noted that the incidence rate for the virus needs to go down significantly before schools can likely meet in-person again.

Spokane County’s latest incidence rate in a two-week period was 209 cases per 100,000 residents, according to state data.

Lutz said internationally, other countries did not send children back to school until their incidence was below 75 or even 60 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks.

“If you look at the absolute incidence rate as a metric, we have a long ways to go based on international data before schools could come back,” he said.

Lutz said he is cautiously optimistic that a COVID-19 vaccine will be available by late winter or early spring, based on where current trials of the most accelerated vaccine development phase is. Moderna is entering its third phase for its COVID-19 vaccine, but with a two-dose offering, and nearly a month between those doses, and then a fourth phase to complete, the vaccine is not near finished yet. Hundreds of vaccine candidates are being studied currently throughout the world.

Health officials emphasized the importance of continuing to get other vaccinations, like the required regiment of childhood vaccinations for children and the flu shot in a few months when it is available. With the coming flu season starting in October, some health experts worry about the effects of both COVID and the flu in the community. For this reason, Lutz said, many of the guidance documents he’s seen encourages residents to get flu shots when they are available.

Only 40% of Spokane County adults got a flu shot in the 2018-2019 flu season. The flu, which is less deadly than COVID-19, can be particularly onerous on the health care system depending on the year, Deb Wiser, chief clinical officer at CHAS Health in Spokane, said.

In some years hospitalizations from flu causes intensive care units to get close to capacity, Wiser said.

“It’s year-to-year dependent, and a couple years ago we had a more intense flu season where some hospitals were running out of beds for those with influenza,” Wiser told reporters Monday.

During the 2019-2020 flu season between 24,000 and 62,000 U.S. residents died from the flu, preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. The novel coronavirus, so far, has killed more than 154,000 U.S. residents.

An intense flu season paired with an influx of COVID patients could be a nightmare for local hospitals, which is why local health officials are emphasizing the importance of flu vaccines this year.

“These folks use the same equipment to pull them through the illness: the beds, the ventilators, equipment and staff,” Wiser said. “These are the same ICU beds we’re using for COVID patients.”

Wiser also emphasized how vital it is for parents and guardians to ensure that their children get their childhood vaccinations in a timely manner to keep other infectious diseases at bay too.

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.