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‘Plateauing is not enough’: State health officials say return to school depends on ‘sustained decline’

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 15, 2020

Volunteer nurses gather for instruction before the Spokane Regional Health District conducts curbside COVID-19 testing on July 7 at Holmes Elementary School. The district is still prepping plans for the potential reopen of buildings this fall, but many questions remain.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Volunteer nurses gather for instruction before the Spokane Regional Health District conducts curbside COVID-19 testing on July 7 at Holmes Elementary School. The district is still prepping plans for the potential reopen of buildings this fall, but many questions remain. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The number of new coronavirus cases is plateauing throughout the state, suggests a new modeling report published Friday .

When new cases of the virus are broken down by age groups, however, the number of newly infected people older than 40 rose in Spokane County through the end of July.

While people in their 40s make up 11% of the population, it accounts for nearly 14% of the county’s COVID-19 cases. Cases in residents over the age of 50 have also risen in recent weeks.

The Institute for Disease Modeling report used data through the end of July. In the first weeks of August, however, case counts have tapered. Hospitalizations have also eased this week after spikes earlier this month.

The most recent seven-day average of new cases reported per day in Spokane County is 69, according to state data. This rolling average is down from the end of July, when Spokane County was averaging 85 cases per day.

On Friday, the Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 46 new COVID-19 cases.

Ten Spokane County residents died this week from COVID-19, and 95 residents have died from the virus so far. There are 70 patients hospitalized in Spokane hospitals with the virus, including 38 county residents.

Despite the number of cases beginning to level off, it won’t be enough to get students back in classrooms this fall, state health officials warned on Friday.

“Plateauing is not enough to keep the epidemic under control,” the Friday situation report says. “We must transition to a state of sustained decline in new cases as has taken place in Yakima.”

The Institute for Disease Modeling also released a detailed modeling report for reopening schools, based on King County data, on Friday.

In brief, the report predicted that putting students in classrooms would result in a jump in COVID-19 cases.

“We should expect cases, and we should expect outbreaks,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for the COVID-19 response at the state Department of Health.

She noted most counties should not embrace a return to school for in-person learning because incidence rates remain too high.

Spokane County’s incidence rate is 201 cases per 100,000 residents in the two weeks from July 26 to Aug. 8. King County’s incidence rate is 86 cases per 100,000 residents.

The Department of Health is strongly recommending distance learning except for certain students in counties that are above the 75 cases per 100,000 residents mark.

Dan Klein, senior research manager at IDM, said the group’s model shows that on the first day of school 5% to 42% of schools might expect to have an infected individual arrive.

The wide range in percentages depends on the county’s incidence rate. Klein and the IDM team modeled scenarios in King County based on an incidence rate of 20, 50 and 110 cases per 100,000 residents.

As might be expected, the lower the county’s incidence rate and the more precautions a school takes, the lower the predicted infection rate would be through the fall.

The IDM report suggests elementary school-aged students should be the first to return to in-person learning when it is safe for them to do so, and some of the best-scenario models included just elementary students coming back – albeit with masks, social distancing and special attention to hygiene on a two-days-a-week, staggered in-person schedule.

Klein said the model, while accounting for age distribution, households, school enrollment and employment data in King County, could not account for everything. The model was based primarily on school data not on the possibility of increased transmission due to parents going back to work or the possibility for children to be in congregate care settings if they are remote learning.

He said the model can be looked at broadly by other counties, particularly in how the incidence rates in the community can impact transmission in schools.

Health officials continued to emphasize the importance of local community members’ responsibilities to continue to limit their social interactions, wear face coverings and physically distance to get children back to school in-person.

With elementary-aged students recommended to return first, getting high school students back to in-person classes will be challenging, Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County Health Officer, said.

“This next year is going to be very rough, and whether or not we get high school students back to school this school year remains to be seen,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that people in their 40s - not people over 40 years old - comprise 11% of Spokane County’s population and 14% of the county’s COVID-19 cases. 

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story 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.

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