The weekly COVID media briefing from Snohomish County officials was marked by a growing concern over the county’s stubbornly rising numbers of case rates and hospitalizations, the two critical metrics used by Gov. Inslee’s office to determine which reopening phase will be operative.
On March 11 Inslee rolled out the revamped Roadmap to Recovery program, initially placing all Washington counties in Phase 3, the least restrictive category. For large counties like Snohomish (more than 50,000 residents) to remain in Phase 3, they must keep a 14-day average of new COVID cases at or below 200 per 100,000 residents, and a seven-day average of new hospitalizations per 100,000 at five or fewer. Smaller counties are subject to a slightly different set of measures as shown in the chart below.
Counties are individually evaluated every three weeks. The evaluations occur on Mondays with any phase changes taking effect on Friday. The next evaluation is scheduled for this coming Monday, May 3.
Since the initial announcement, three counties (Pierce, Cowlitz, and Whitman) have failed to hit the critical thresholds and have been rolled back to Phase 2. More information on which activities are permitted under each phase is available here.
“Our case rate numbers are definitely going the wrong direction,” said Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish County Health Official. “As of the two weeks ending April 24, we are up to 223 new cases per 100,000 population, which is above the Phase 3 threshold of 200.”
The other area where the county is missing the mark is hospitalizations.
“For the week ending April 24, we are up to 5.3 hospitalizations per 100,000 population, well north for the 5.0 threshold,” Spitters added. “That clicks both parameters the state uses to determine our recovery phases and makes it likely we’ll be asked to return to Phase 2.”
Other information from the press conference included the latest updates on vaccination numbers and plans to expand vaccination activity to help ensure vaccinations are available when and where they are needed.
“So far our vaccine supply has been pretty stable, with an average of 25,000 doses arriving each week,” explained Spitters. “At this rate we will likely reach saturation – 90% of all adults in Snohomish County vaccinated – around mid-August.”
Explaining that this is still several months off, Spitters stressed that “we’re not out of the woods yet” and that residents all need to step up efforts at masking, holding small gatherings outdoors, washing hands, sanitizing surfaces and, most importantly, getting vaccinated as the pathway out of the pandemic.
Also present was Jason Biermann, Snohomish County Director of Emergency Management, who outlined some of the ways the county is making it easier to get vaccinated.
“We’re doing everything possible to bring vaccines closer to folks,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to miss their shot at getting a shot.”
Part of this includes releasing appointment slots a week in advance rather than one or two days. Appointments are also being expanded to evenings and weekends to better accommodate peoples’ individual schedules. Another innovation is what Bierman calls “second-dose catchup clinics” located at the county mass vaccination sites, which are specifically for folks having a hard time getting their second dose. Find out more and set up a second-dose appointment by calling 425-339-5278.
Another strategy explained by South County Fire Community Outreach Manager Shawneri Guzman involved going directly into clients’ homes to administer the vaccine.
“Many homebound folks are at higher risk due to medical issues and comorbidities,” she explained. “Also many are being cared for by family members or others who go to multiple homes and thereby increase the risk of exposure.”
So far, these teams have been able to administer 200 in-home vaccinations.
“This is astounding when you think of the logistics of doing homebound visits that include travel time, coming into a home, explaining the procedure and more,” she added.
Somers summed up the presentations with a rundown of the latest vaccination numbers and a call to continue masking and other strategies, and for county residents to get vaccinated as soon as they can.
“Last week we passed an important milestone, surpassing 500,000 vaccine doses administered,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. “This means about 30% of our residents over the age of 16 are vaccinated, but we still have a long way to go. Getting vaccinated is the one sure way to end the pandemic, so if you’re 16 or older please sign up and help us end the worst public health crisis we’ve experienced in the past 100 years.”
Even if the county rolls back to Phase 2, Somers vowed to continue “pushing as hard as we can” and continue vaccinating as quickly as possible.
“If you don’t like wearing masks, if you don’t like seeing businesses restricted, if you like being able to go to restaurants with your friends, get vaccinated,” he stressed. “That’s how we end this.”
Questions from the press included reaction to the CDC’s relaxed guidelines on mask wearing, to which Spitters reiterated that while the science says fully vaccinated people can safely relax masking in certain situations – at home, outdoors and spread out – the unvaccinated need to continue masking everywhere except at home. “Especially with variants emerging, it makes sense to play it on the careful side,” he said. “If we back off, I think we’ll regret it. And bear in mind that none of these liberties apply to the unvaccinated.”
Another question asked was whether the county is seeing major outbreaks at venues like restaurants, retail sales locations and gyms, and if not, is it fair to restrict them to 25 percent capacity should we revert to Phase 2.
Spitters responded that current workplace outbreaks are roughly double what officials saw when they bottomed out in March. “We need to continue doing what works,” he said. “It’s based on science and whether it’s fair or not is not for me to judge – but it’s good public health practice.”
Another questioner brought up that the last time the state was on the verge of slipping, the governor changed how the metrics were evaluated, and asked whether this might happen again.
Somers responded that he’d be “very surprised” if a change like this is in order, pointing out that last week the governor had been asked the same question and responded that there’s no current consideration of changing any metrics.
In response to how many Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses are available in the county, both Spitters and Biermann said that there are still about 2,600 J&J doses on hand statewide, which due to the allocation formula means about 400 of these could end up in Snohomish County. These would be administered through community-based vaccination centers, and at the Ash Way and Boomtown mass vaccination sites. According to Biermann, patients are informed beforehand if they’re getting the J&J vaccine, and that so far “none have opted out.”
Other questions addressed the increase in cases among younger populations, whether mRNA vaccines are having therapeutic benefits for long-haul COVID patients, and information on the progress of clinical trials aimed at studying the efficacy of vaccination in youths 12-15 years old.
Interested persons can view the full video of this morning’s and past press briefings under the “video briefings” tab on the Snohomish Health District’s News and Briefings page.
— By Larry Vogel