COVID-19 media briefings: County officials say infections remain high; governor continues pause on Safe Start reopening

At last week’s Snohomish County COVID-19 media briefing, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers worried that the county’s Phase 2 reopening might be in jeopardy as case levels soared. Now, says Somers, “we’re not near anywhere close to that (moving from Phase 2 back to Phase 1) and we don’t want to be.”

The reason for this change? While the new case infection rate average is high, both the number of deaths and hospitalizations remains flat — although officials warn that could change.

Meanwhile, at the state level, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced to the media that he would be extending until at least July 28 the pause on counties moving to new phases of reopening as part of the Safe Start plan.

Inslee cited data that shows transmission rates of COVID-19 are increasing throughout most of the state instead of falling, and there’s a growing percentage of new cases among Washington residents in their 20s. Yakima County is the exception as its mask-wearing efforts appear to be successful so far and transmission is declining, he said.

The governor cautioned that California and Oregon recently restored certain restrictions, and Washington state’s health officials are watching COVID-19 activity closely to determine if similar steps will be necessary here.

During Tuesday’s county briefing, Somers updated what he calls three key markers of Snohomish County’s progress on COVID-19.

First, the county’s new case infection rate average is way too high; 62 cases per 100,000 residents. That’s more than twice the rate of 25 new cases per 100,000 that the state has set for a benchmark. The county met that target last month when Phase 2 began.

Why are there more cases?  It is not due to more testing. Somers and County Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters both agree on that. Spitters says people exposed to the virus in daily life drive the increase. Many of those new cases, he adds, are showing up in younger populations. They may not become seriously ill and that is part of the good news.

Second, the number of deaths due to coronavirus has “not seen a spike yet,” says Somers. Countywide, there have been 19 deaths from May 27-June 27. That has not changed in recent weeks.

Third, fewer patients are hospitalized now. The health care system is not showing the signs of stress that it did in the outbreak in March. Coronavirus patients currently occupy less than 10% of hospital beds. “We’re not seeing an overload of the system,” says Somers.

What Dr. Spitters does see is a disproportionate number of cases in communities of color. Non-white and Hispanic residents have a “significantly higher rise in infections,” he adds. For those of Pacific Islander and Hawaiian ethnicity, the rate of infection is 14 times higher than other groups. Hispanic, Black and Asian communities average an infection rate around three times higher than the white community.

Spitters attributes some of the higher rates to a “disparity in occupational exposures; to the number of minorities in front line and health care, to housing density and underlying differences in access to health care.” COVID-19, he adds, is “exposing some of the disparities in health access.”

The COVID pandemic has kept Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management scrambling.

Jason Biermann

Director Jason Biermann reports his department has provided 4 million pieces of personal protective equipment, assists the health district and oversees what he calls their “nourishing neighborhoods” program. It helps provide food to people unable to get to food banks or other food resources.

His staff also runs the county’s only isolation and quarantine facility for people who may have been exposed to the virus but have no safe place to go to quarantine.  Currently, 53 people are at the isolation facility near the Monroe Fairgrounds, where Emergency Management staffers care for them until they either test negative or need to go to other facilities for care.

Both Spitters and Somers say the county is “doing the best we can” to fight the virus. They both acknowledge that there is no perfect approach. The county contact tracing team is finally at full strength and training is complete; but Spitters admits as the team ramped up, there have been “some poor performances.” He says it has been particularly challenging to track down everyone who has been to a large gathering or a party; that often they don’t know who was there with them or won’t return calls from health investigators. In the last week, he adds, the contact team is back up to speed in efficiency and tracing operations.

The county’s drive-through testing site can now accommodate 150 people a day at McCollum Park. You can schedule a reservation for testing here. Test results are back within 24-48 hours; there has been no backlog in results as some other communities have faced around the nation.

Spitters summed up the county’s progress by saying we are doing the best we can in uncharted waters. His reminder to the community: “We are just six months into this; often it is years and years before we fully understand” what this or any virus does.

— By Bob Throndsen


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