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Health officer worries COVID-19 hospitalizations ready to rise

Providence Sacred Heart Hospital is seen from the north side at street level in April. Health officials are worried about an influx of hospitalizations as coronavirus cases continue to climb.  (Libby Kamrowski/Spokesman-Review)

With more worksite outbreaks and more evidence of community spread of COVID-19, Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz is concerned.

On Friday, Spokane County Health District reported 43 new cases, leading the total case count to surpass 900. There were 936 total confirmed cases on Friday.

Models released earlier this month show that the county has not reached its peak case count yet and that the reproductive rate of the virus continues to increase. The latest modeling report shows that the prevalence of the virus in Spokane, Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties is comparable or higher to the levels of COVID-19 in King County in mid-March, when adjusted for populations.

In the four weeks since Memorial Day weekend, when the county moved into Phase 2, more than 500 cases have been confirmed, and while the increase in cases is in part due to more widespread testing, also problematic is the community spread of the illness, which means epidemiologists cannot link a case to any other confirmed cases .

“We are looking at and graphing where we have epidemiologically linked cases and where (we) don’t, and what I’m seeing is we’re definitely having more community spread and community cases – and that’s really concerning,” Lutz said.

There are only nine Spokane County residents in local hospitals, but this can be a deceiving metric when assessing hospital capacity, Lutz said.

As the regional health care hub, Spokane hospitals are treating COVID patients from surrounding regions. Health care providers at the four Spokane County hospitals are caring for 22 COVID-19 patients currently, Lutz said, including individuals from other counties in Eastern Washington as well as some inmates impacted by the Coyote Ridge outbreak, which has so far been the largest outbreak at a prison facility statewide.

After more than 100 cases in both inmates and staff members at the Connell prison were confirmed, the state Department of Corrections announced this week that it will test all staff members and all individuals in the medium security complex, which means 1,775 incarcerated individuals will be tested. Details on the testing plan are forthcoming, the department said. As of Wednesday, the department had only tested 129 inmates. Currently 96 inmates have the virus, and 40 staff members do too. There are 18 incarcerated individuals who have been transferred to a regional care facility at Airway Heights Corrections Center.

Spokane’s hospitals are taking on patients who need treatment but can’t get it at their local hospitals. Four hospitals covering Benton and Franklin counties currently have 75 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, who make up 20% of the region’s total hospitalizations. In Yakima, 51 residents are hospitalized with COVID-19.

Virus case counts and deaths are projected to increase this summer without interventions, like adherence to masking directives and phased guidelines, modelers believe.

This week, Lutz spoke with the Institute for Disease Modeling about the outlook for Spokane County, and he came away with a somber outlook.

“We will see more hospitalizations in the next one, two, three or four weeks and that’s where I’m really concerned because my case counts are going up,” Lutz said.

Currently, there is capacity in local hospitals, but should a surge in cases and hospitalizations occur, hospitals might have to limit procedures and other care they can offer in order to treat patients who have the virus.

More than a third of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Spokane County are in people in their 20s and 30s. Lutz said these cases are unique because many younger people are experiencing no other symptoms than simply losing their sense of taste or smell. He encouraged anyone experiencing these symptoms to get tested.

This age group also tends to be out and around others whether in essential work or socializing, which is why Lutz and state health officials this week stressed the importance of using face coverings when in public, keeping to gathering limits (Phase 2 limits gatherings to no more than 5 people outside of one’s household a week) and physical distancing.

Without increasing the community’s efforts to physically distance or wear masks, case counts will likely continue to grow and stall the county’s progress from advancing ahead in the governor’s reopening phases. County commissioners attempted to get Lutz to move to apply for Phase 3 this week, but Lutz does not believe the county is ready.

A new report from the Department of Health found that the highest number of COVID-19 infections is among health care and social assistance workers, although this does not mean they contracted the virus at work. Statewide, the manufacturing industry has the second highest number of cases, which includes food processing facilities.

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.