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COVID-19 outbreak at Spokane retirement community affects 36, but officials say it would have been much worse without vaccines

Riverview Retirement Community’s assisted living facility had gone 15 months without a single COVID-19 case or death – until last month.

But when the coronavirus began spreading inside the Spokane facility, 98% of the residents and more than half of staff members were fully vaccinated, significantly lessening the blow of what could have been a much more deadly outbreak, according to health officials.

Since May 11, 28 residents and eight staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

Five of those residents have since died, but emergency records only list two of those deaths so far with COVID-19 as a contributing factor, according to the Spokane Regional Health District.

The majority of those who did test positive are asymptomatic or have symptoms that have not required hospitalization.

Of the five residents who were hospitalized, the majority had underlying health conditions. Two are still being treated in local hospitals.

Similar outbreaks in other long-term care facilities were much deadlier.

Mike Drew, CEO of Riverview Retirement, said he has talked with other leaders of long-term care facilities who had 10, 20 or even 30 deaths as a result of outbreaks before vaccines were available.

“It makes me so grateful for the 15 months we had with no cases among assisted living residents,” Drew said.

He also recognizes the role that vaccines likely played at Riverview, which is at 1801 W. Upriver Drive.

Of the 28 residents who tested positive for the virus, 27 of those cases are considered breakthrough cases, according to the health district, meaning that people who were fully vaccinated against the virus tested positive.

Some of these cases might not have even been detected without the testing, which picked up some asymptomatic people. Drew called this the silver lining to the outbreak cloud. Weekly testing discovers positive cases that might not be found otherwise, including among staff members. The testing will continue at Riverview until the health district considers the outbreak over.

“It bodes well for the safety of our residents,” Drew said of the continued testing.

Of the eight staff members who tested positive, three were considered breakthrough cases by the health district. The other five were not vaccinated.

Outbreaks at long-term care facilities have dropped significantly since the peak of the third wave last winter, but they have not gone away altogether. Currently, there are 10 long-term care facilities and two adult family homes in Spokane County with confirmed outbreaks, according to data from the health district.

Breakthrough cases are expected with the three COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States, and the primary function of the vaccines is to prevent severe disease that could lead to hospitalization and death.

So far, state data show vaccines doing exactly this.

Among Washington residents 45 to 64 years old, those who are unvaccinated and get the virus have a hospitalization rate 21 times higher than people that age who are fully vaccinated.

For residents 65 and older, people who aren’t vaccinated are 13 times more likely to be hospitalized if they get the virus than those who are vaccinated.

“We’re very concerned about those being unvaccinated increasingly being the proportion of those hospitalized,” Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah told reporters Wednesday.

There have been 1,575 breakthrough cases confirmed in Washington, spread quite evenly across all age groups. So far, 108 of these cases have required hospitalization and 27 people have died from a breakthrough case.

Among the breakthrough deaths, all of the cases for which data is available had one or more underlying health condition, according to the state’s most recent breakthrough case report.

State epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said the current breakthrough case data is what he expects.

“Nine percent of these breakthroughs have been hospitalized, so they can be ill, but as far as deaths go, the majority are older and have underlying health conditions, which is not unexpected,” he said on Wednesday.

As for the benefits of vaccination, they still far outweigh the risk of the virus without it, health officials said.

“What we’re starting to see is a difference between hospitalizations for sure between people who are vaccinated versus those who are not,” Lindquist said.

Here’s a look at local numbersThe Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 167 new cases on Wednesday, but many of these cases are from the backlogged data from the Department of Health and date back to December.

The district also confirmed three additional deaths, bringing the county total to 646 deaths due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

There are 61 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 40 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and no additional deaths.

There are 37 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

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.