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More than 500 Spokane County residents have died due to COVID-19

Paramedics administer the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to local firefighters and first responders Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 at a drive through vaccination clinic put on by the Spokane Regional Health District.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane County continues to record high numbers of deaths from COVID-19 this month, hitting a grim milestone Friday.

The Spokane Regional Health District recorded 25 deaths this week, including five more on Friday, bringing the total number of virus deaths to 503.

Spokane County also passed the 34,000-case mark on Friday, with 256 new cases confirmed.

Those numbers were recorded at a time when virus activity is on the decline.

A spike of more than 500 cases recorded on Thursday included about 200 cases that were delayed in being reported from the outbreak at Airway Heights Corrections Center.

There are currently 100 patients in Spokane hospitals being treated for the virus.

While case counts started to decline this month, they are currently at the levels they were in mid-November, just before rapidly increasing, a new situation report from the state health department shows.

With the virus reproductive number below 1 in Washington , meaning a person with the virus is passing it on to less than one person on average, the state has an opportunity to drive down transmission rates before new variants can get a foothold.

The U.K.’s more contagious variant of the virus, B.1.1.7, has already been detected in Washington . Modelers estimate that if it becomes prevalent, the state would see rapid growth of not only cases but hospitalizations.

“With a 1.5 fold increase in transmissibility over current strains, prevention of exponential growth in hospitalizations and cases would become significantly more challenging,” the latest incidence report says.

Portugal, the United Kingdom and Ireland have seen new waves of the virus with the introduction of the B.1.1.7 variant, and in some countries, months after the variant was detected there. Portugal’s COVID activity is still peaking 10 weeks after the new variant was detected.

“We have a window of opportunity to reduce case and hospitalization rates as much as possible before the B.1.1.7 strain becomes predominant,” the incident report released Friday says. “A longer window means more people can get vaccinated, which will ultimately reduce the overall burden of additional cases that the new strain will bring. Continued firm adherence to masking and social distancing remains critical.”

More vaccine doses coming – slowly

The mass vaccination site at the Spokane Arena vaccinated 1,829 people on Wednesday and Thursday. All 3,000 doses available there will be used to vaccinate people with appointments through Tuesday, and CHAS officials anticipate using some of next week’s doses to make up the difference if there are more people than they initially scheduled.

Kelley Charvet, chief administrative officer at CHAS, said they anticipate receiving a similar amount of doses next week (about 3,000), but she would not confirm an exact number until they receive the doses on Monday. CHAS will open up new scheduling for first-dose appointments online starting on Monday at 5 p.m.

The Spokane Arena is only vaccinating eligible people who live or work in Washington , including health care and frontline workers, residents 65 years old and older, and those 50 years old and over who live in multigenerational households. Charvet said staff are not “policing” those with appointments for their eligibility, noting that some appointment slots were scheduled this week by people who are not eligible for the vaccine yet under state requirements.

“We are asking individuals to be honest about scheduling those appointments,” Charvet told reporters Friday.

Volunteers and staff at the Spokane Arena are asking people with appointments to take the state’s PhaseFinder eligibility assessment and bring a printout or screenshot of their eligibility with them to the appointment.

The state hotline, which eventually will be expanded to help people register for appointments at mass vaccination sites, will not be operational until Tuesday, tentatively, according to Charvet.

This means people hoping to schedule appointments for next week will need to rely on the online registration through CHAS.

There are still not enough vaccine doses to meet demand or eligibility, including in Spokane County.

As of Jan. 27, 91 providers in Spokane County had received 59,050 doses, according to the Department of Health. Of those doses, 42,679 doses have been administered, for a total of 37,455 people in Spokane County initiating vaccinations, since the shots require two doses for full effectiveness.

While 91 providers have received doses, only 11 providers are listed publicly by the Department of Health because they are offering public vaccine clinics. Most of those providers did not offer first-dose appointments this week due to lack of supplies, or if they did, they were snapped up quickly.

The Department of Health had not released new dose numbers for next week by press time.

There are far more Spokane County residents eligible for the vaccine currently than the number of doses received thus far in the county, indicating that the process will continue to take some time.

According to Spokane Trends, there are about 88,500 residents aged 65 and older in Spokane County.

Ambulatory health, hospitals and long-term care facilities employ about 33,175 people, according to 2019 labor statistics. The number of residents 50 years old and older in multigenerational households is difficult to estimate, with the only data available being about a decade old.

Regardless, these estimates indicate that at least 121,675 Spokane County residents are currently eligible for the vaccine.

In previous weeks, Washington has only received about 100,000 vaccine doses, and while state health officials expect those allocations to slightly increase in the coming weeks, they are distributed statewide.

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.