Washington had appeared to be “flattening the curve” in May, with daily COVID-19 case counts dropping.
After devastating outbreaks in late March and throughout April at nursing homes and food processing plants statewide, it was easy for communities to assume the worst was over. And at the end of May, counties began the process of reopening in phases after a strict stay-home order shuttered much of the economy.
But the virus was still there. And as stores, restaurants and other business welcomed customers back and social interactions increased, the virus began to spread even more rapidly than before through many communities, especially in Eastern Washington.
While statewide testing has increased since mid-June, experts say an increasing rate of positive results per test indicates that testing is not the sole reason for the recent growth in COVID-19 transmission.
“The reason we have increases is that people are increasing their interactions and not paying attention to the physical distancing that they need to,” State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said. “I also believe that people are expanding their circle with folks larger than they should have contact with.”
Case counts statewide seemed to peak in April. But as the state enters the Fourth of July weekend, Washington has surpassed that previous high. On Wednesday, the state recorded an all-time high number of new cases in a day, Wiesman said, with 728 confirmed.
“This is obviously a great cause for concern,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday.
There are now 34,151 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington, with a percent positivity rate of 5.8%. So far, 1,342 state residents have died from the virus.
At the beginning of June, outbreaks in Spokane County were largely connected to workplaces and long-term care facilities. But as the month went on, the average age of residents testing positive dropped significantly and, as is now true around the state, young people began to drive rising case counts.
From January to March, people under the age of 35 made up 22% of COVID-19 cases in the state, according to modelers. But from May to June, they represent 46% of cases.
The relative youth of those testing positive has been linked to a declining death rate from the disease.
“While the overall number of cases have recently been increasing, COVID-19 deaths have been decreasing. This is likely primarily driven by the caseload shifting to younger people, who have a substantially lower COVID-19 mortality risk,” a report from the Institute of Disease Modeling says. “Testing proportions by age have remained fairly consistent over time, which reinforces the conclusion of a true shift in the epidemic to a younger population.”
Young people testing positive for the virus might not mean more hospitalizations now, but modelers predict that “over time without widespread change in behavior” the number of COVID-like visits to emergency rooms will increase as they pass their virus on to more vulnerable people.
Several counties are still not at their expected peak number of cases, including Benton, Franklin and Spokane counties.
On Wednesday, the Benton Franklin Health District reported a record-setting 215 new cases.
“We started seeing our case counts go up starting after Mother’s Day, when we started having significant events in our community and after Memorial Day we had more of an increase, and after Father’s Day,” Rick Dawson, senior surveillance manager at BFHD, told reporters Thursday.
These gatherings weren’t technically allowed, as Benton and Franklin were both in Phase 1 at the time and only this week got clearance to apply for a modified Phase 1 that will allow some businesses that aren’t essential to open.
Health officials in Benton and Franklin counties worry that local intensive care units might be overwhelmed due to the increase in cases.
Area hospitals “expressed concerns around staffing, particularly around ICU staffing,” said Dr. Amy Person, health officer at BFHD, during a news briefing Thursday. “This is one of the reasons we need to take this disease seriously.”
Similarly, in Spokane County, hospital officials explained this week that capacity is less about bed count and much more about having the staff to be able to treat COVID-19 patients who need intensive care. This week, the county set a record high of daily cases at 79 on Tuesday, and hospitalizations are predicted to double in the coming weeks.
With the holiday weekend approaching, health officials are pleading with residents to keep their gatherings small, to wear face coverings indoors and outdoors when 6 feet of space cannot be maintained, and to limit their travel.
Traveling has impacted smaller counties, like Lincoln County, where the virus has not spread significantly yet.
Lincoln County is one of 17 counties in Phase 3 of the governor’s reopening plan. While many of these counties have reported very few cases since reopening, two of Lincoln County’s four new cases were reported this month and were attributed to residents traveling to areas with high COVID-19 rates, health administrator Ed Dzedzy said.
“In both of the cases we have, it is local people that traveled out of the county to counties that are at higher risk or lower phases, one to Grant and one to Spokane and as far as we can tell, that’s where their exposures occurred,” Dzedzy said.
Dzedzy said officials are asking residents to limit travel and to be aware of the circumstances of the places they visit.
Inslee and Wiesman announced Thursday a two-week pause on counties moving forward with the state’s reopening plan in order for the state to try to get a handle on its latest surge.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” Wiesman said. “These viruses have a timeline of their own.”
If there is hope, it’s in Yakima County, where preliminary data show that after strict masking directives for residents and businesses were implemented, incidence rates of the virus appear to be dropping after weeks of exponential growth.
“Although the data are preliminary, we’ve seen their rate of infection go down already,” Wiesman told reporters Thursday.
Also on Thursday, Wiesman and Inslee announced the approach that’s apparently working in Yakima County will be applied statewide.
Health officials hope that as more people wear face coverings in public, the virus will be brought under control again in the coming weeks. But that will take buy-in from nearly everyone.
“If we were to get 80% of people to wear face coverings or masks when they are out and about, we would see a decrease in a couple of weeks,” Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz told reporters on Wednesday.
“It needs to be a collective effort if we’re going to be seeing our cases drop in the next couple weeks.”
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