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COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations continue to rise as omicron infects entire households

This electron microscope image made available and color-enhanced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Md., shows Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 virus particles.  (HOGP)

Spokane County likely won’t hit its omicron wave peak until the beginning of February, local health officials said Wednesday.

Omicron is different than past coronavirus variants in how quickly it is infecting entire households locally.

Previously, one person testing positive in an environment like a house, dorm or apartment did not necessarily mean that everyone they lived with would also test positive. Omicron changed that, however, Mark Springer, epidemiologist at Spokane Regional Health District, said Wednesday.

He said entire households, work sites, dorms and other settings are now having broader transmission of the virus, leading to some of the county’s highest case counts recorded during the pandemic.

Hospitalizations also continue to increase both statewide and in the Inland Northwest.

There are 234 people hospitalized with the virus in the Inland Northwest, including at Kootenai Health, Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez told reporters Wednesday.

Statewide in Washington, COVID hospitalizations are the highest they’ve been the entire pandemic. There are 2,272 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Washington hospitals.

The silver lining is that so far omicron has meant people are staying in the hospital for shorter periods than with previous variants, Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said.

The proportion of COVID patients hospitalized has also declined, despite the overall number of hospitalizations increasing.

For instance, in Spokane County, just 15% of hospitalized patients have COVID-19, which is much lower than 25% or more of people in the hospital having the virus during the delta wave, Velázquez said.

Shah said there is less ICU and ventilator-use for COVID patients in the hospitals during this wave, but the math problem beleaguering the state’s health care system remains.

“Because we have so many people utilizing the health care system, it’s still quite stressed,” Shah said.

Unvaccinated COVID patients still make up the majority of hospitalized patients with the virus statewide, he added.

Health officials also reminded the public that just because omicron is more “mild,” doesn’t mean you won’t get sick, especially if you aren’t boosted.

About 53% of eligible Washington residents have received an additional dose of a vaccine, and state health officials encouraged the rest of that group to get a booster soon.

If you had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you are eligible two months after your initial dose. If you had the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, you are eligible five months after your second dose.

“If it’s been well over five months since you’ve received your vaccine and you’ve not been boosted or haven’t started your vaccination series, you’re a sitting duck for this omicron variant,” Shah warned.

The omicron variant made up 100% of positive test samples sequenced from Jan. 5 to Jan. 11, according to new state data.

Treatment and testing resources are still in high demand, and health officials continue to ask for patience when looking.

Each state has been allocated a limited supply of antiviral medications that can help treat COVID-19, and local providers are using specific guidelines to allocate the limited doses available in the county.

The Department of Health will likely open the state testing portal, for residents to order at-home test kits (which include four to five tests per kit), by Friday or this weekend, although officials did not give a firm date.

This is due to the limited supplies available. The department will only initially have 350,000 test kits to distribute, and health officials asked for patience since they anticipate high demand for the kits, which will be free with a limit of one per household in the state. Eventually, the state will have 3.5 million test kits to distribute, but with supply constraints, they don’t expect that supply to arrive all within the month.

The federal government also opened its testing portal Tuesday, allowing residents to order four tests to their home address through the U.S. Postal Service.

Here’s a look at local numbers

Case counts in both Washington state and Idaho are likely undercounts due to data backlogs at the state level.

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 526 new COVID-19 cases and seven additional deaths on Wednesday.

There have been 1,177 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 154 patients hospitalized in Spokane County with COVID-19.

The Panhandle Health District reported 264 new cases of the virus and 11 additional deaths.

There have been 822 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents.

There are 91 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus, and Kootenai Health was treating 87 COVID patients as of Wednesday morning.

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.