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COVID-19 cases declining in Washington state, less so in Spokane and North Idaho

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19.   (HOGP)

Coronavirus case rates are declining in Washington as more people get vaccinated, but Spokane County may be an exception.

There has been a 25% increase in those who are eligible receiving at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the past month statewide. As of Sept. 27, more than 4.9 million Washington residents, or 76.4% of Washingtonians 12 and older, have received at least one dose.

Current data appears to show case counts and hospitalizations are beginning to decline in Washington; however, in Spokane County, that’s not necessarily the case.

The case rate in Spokane County is up or down depending on the day, with hundreds of new cases still confirmed on a daily basis.

Hospitalizations, however, have begun to decrease, opening up some wiggle room for critical access hospitals to transfer patients in emergent or critical situations.

The hospital system is nowhere near back to normal, however, and the number of hospitalized patients statewide still exceeds peaks seen during last winter’s surge.

“All of our hospitals are uncomfortably full,” Dr. Dan Getz, chief medical officer at Providence Spokane, told reporters Wednesday. “While we’ve seen a plateau, we’re still above last winter surge and we don’t know when we’ll return to a volume we are comfortable with.”

Some 2,000 surgeries and procedures have been delayed or postponed in Providence Spokane hospitals alone thanks to the current COVID surge.

Getz tied the delay in other medical care to the lower vaccination rates in Spokane County, North Idaho and surrounding Eastern Washington counties.

There are still 1.5 million Washington residents eligible to get vaccinated who have not gotten their shots. Eastern Washington has many counties with low vaccination rates, on par with North Idaho county rates.

State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah, who visited Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, cautioned that just because hospitalizations are declining, the state’s health care system is not automatically in a good place.

Similarly, across state lines things are not much better at Kootenai Health, where there has been consistently more than 110 COVID patients hospitalized for more than two weeks.

There are two people under the age of 18 hospitalized with the virus at Kootenai Health, and the critical care unit there continues to experience extremely high patient volumes.

Dr. Robert Scoggins, medical director of the critical care unit, said the hospital has seen a record number of deaths this month.

So far in September, 34 patients have died from the virus at Kootenai Health.

“I’ve signed a lot of death certificates in the last couple months – a lot of death certificates of younger people that I don’t think should have been hospitalized,” Scoggins said Wednesday. “I think this, in my mind, is a very preventable disease. The vaccines work very well in decreasing hospitalization and severe illness, especially in young people, and I look at how many years a person has ahead of them, and we’re losing a lot of young people who have many years of life ahead of them.”

The number of patients testing positive for the virus has remained more or less steady at Kootenai Health; about one in four patients getting tested at Kootenai Health have had COVID-19 in recent days. Idaho has no statewide mask mandate, and schools in North Idaho are not requiring masks in classrooms.

Washington leaders called on Idaho leaders to change policies to help mitigate the surge in virus cases.

“We want to encourage our colleagues and neighbors in Idaho and elsewhere in the country … to do the right thing and put those policies in place to mitigate people coming into health care system,” Shah said on Wednesday.

Here’s a look at local numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 350 COVID cases on Wednesday and no additional deaths.

There are 145 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Spokane.

The Panhandle Health District reported 191 new COVID-19 cases and four additional deaths.

There have been 475 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents.

There are 119 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.