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Virus activity on the rise again in the Inland Northwest

There are 40 patients at Spokane hospitals, including Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, who are receiving treatment for COVID-19.  (Libby Kamrowski)

Things could get worse before they get better if the coronavirus model Dr. David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and his team has created is correct.

It shows that Spokane County, and the Inland Northwest in general, are heating up as a COVID hot spot.

“There’s clearly been a change that’s aggravating,” Rubin said.

In the last week , Spokane County has had 668 confirmed cases, an unwelcome trajectory of COVID-19 activity after weeks of declining numbers.

The bump is likely attributable to a combination of factors. The PolicyLab’s model is based primarily on the growth in cases or the transmission rate of a local county.

Rubin and his team have looked at how weather has impacted outbreaks throughout the pandemic, noting that intense weather like extreme heat in the Sun Belt can drive people indoors, where congregating and gathering can lead to increased COVID-19 transmission.

With the smoke event last week driving many Washington residents indoors, Rubin said it’s possible that that could have played into increasing cases.

Outbreaks at universities, like Washington State University, and in neighboring counties also play into the PolicyLab model. Assuming no changes to social distancing practices, the PolicyLab model projects an upward trajectory for virus activity in the coming week in Spokane County.

“We’ve seen a general increase in risk throughout Montana, Idaho and the eastern side of Washington,” Rubin told The Spokesman-Review.

There is not one concentrated spot for cases or outbreaks confirmed this week, according to the Spokane Regional Health District.

Cases have been linked to gatherings and workplaces, as well as long-term care facilities. Universities and schools in Spokane, so far have not been the sources of major case counts.

Gonzaga University currently has 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases, primarily in students living on-campus. Whitworth University has 13 confirmed cases, primarily in students living off campus.

Whitman County Public Health confirmed 28 new cases on Friday, and the county now has a total of 1,240 cases confirmed, primarily in college-aged students returning to the Pullman area.

Some school districts have experienced outbreaks in the Idaho Panhandle including the Lakeland and Boundary County school districts.

The Panhandle Health District reported 47 new cases on Friday, and the percent positivity in the five-county region has increased to nearly 8% in just a week’s time.

Spokane County’s percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 has also increased this month. The most recently updated percent positivity rate in Spokane County is 9%.

Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 103 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. Three more county residents have died from the virus, and hospitalizations appear to be increasing.

Rubin said that hospitalizations can increase following a few weeks of increased COVID activity, as the region saw earlier this summer.

“If you see multiple weeks with increasing forecasts… a couple weeks later you see hospitalizations start to climb,” Rubin said.

There are 40 patients with COVID-19 receiving treatment in Spokane area hospitals, and 31 of them are Spokane County residents.

There are active outbreaks at 12 long-term care facilities in Spokane County, accounting for about 300 cases.

The Spokane Veterans Home, which had a deadly outbreak earlier in the pandemic with more than 70 cases, announced that two staff members have tested positive for the virus this week. One staff member developed symptoms while at work and was tested, and another staff member was screened and sent home due to possible exposure. Both staff members were wearing personal protective equipment while they were at work prior to their positive test results, a press release from the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs says.

Residents will be tested about every three to seven days.

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.