Possible winter wave of COVID-19 and flu infections worries county health officials

Dr. Chris Spitters (bottom right) and Snohomish County health officials provided an update about COVID-19 via Zoom on Oct. 5.

COVID-19 case rates in Snohomish County have declined slightly from a recent peak, but health officials said at a briefing Tuesday that yet another wave of infections is possible this winter. A surge in those infections, along with potential impacts from this year’s flu season, could further strain area hospitals.

Snohomish County Chief Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters said prevention measures — including wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings along with “completing a vaccination effort that reaches a higher proportion of Snohomish County residents” — are keys to avoiding such a spike.

“This is particularly of concern with the forthcoming influenza season,” he noted. Last year’s flu season was very light to almost non-existent because of social distancing and masking measures, which prevented large-scale transmission.

But “given somewhat of the retreat from that higher level of restriction on activities we do expect with people working, gathering, traveling that we will see a flu season in sync with a COVID surge that could again throw hospitals back into a worse state than they were recently,” Spitters said. “And really they (hospitals) remain struggling, they’re coming off of the peak, but we could go right back there or even beyond.”

As of Monday, 77 hospital beds — or approximately 10% of total beds — in Snohomish County were occupied by COVID-19 patients – 15 of those cases involved people being mechanically ventilated. Hospitals, including ICUs and general floors, are operating at about 90% of capacity Spitters said. “Ongoing staffing shortages in both acute care and long-term care remain the primary bottleneck in healthcare system capacity but not the only challenge,” he added.

Spitters urged people to get vaccinations against COVID-19 and the flu, both of which can be administered at the same time. “Given that the upcoming influenza season is likely going to be worse than the last two years and we’ll also be at risk for another COVID wave, getting vaccinated against both COVID if you haven’t done so, getting a booster for COVID if you are eligible and also getting vaccinated against influenza right now will mitigate (a) winter hospitalization surge, protect individual health and help us as a society get through facing these two respiratory viruses,” Spitters said.

The influenza vaccine is recommended for everyone who is 6 months and older, but especially for older adults and people with underlying medical conditions that place them at increased risks of hospitalization, severe disease and death.

Snohomish County recently hit two big vaccination milestones that Spitters highlighted. The one-millionth dose of COVID-19 vaccines was administered over the weekend, giving the county approximately 490,000 residents who have been fully vaccinated along with about 42,000 people who are partially vaccinated.

The county has also now reached a 75% threshold of eligible residents that have received at least one dose of vaccine. Spitters noted that roughly a 10% gap exists between the rates of people who have begun a vaccine regimen versus those who have completed it. He strongly urged everyone who has started receiving a series of vaccine shots to complete the process and for anyone who hasn’t yet initiated vaccination to do so.

“Snohomish County should be pleased and proud to have one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, but we still have far to go,” Spitters said. “Even though these accomplishments are something to take stock in and celebrate the fight’s not over.” Over the past two months, the county has averaged approximately 10,000 residents being vaccinated per week, he added, and that figure is split fairly equally between people receiving their first shot and those receiving a second dose of the vaccine.

Booster shot recommendations currently only apply to those who have completed the Pfizer vaccine, six months after having received their second dose. Spitters strongly recommended certain groups eligible for a booster shot to do so including long-term care residents, people aged 65 years and up, and those ages 50-64 with underlying medical conditions raising their risk for disease and hospitalization.

It is recommended that people ages 18-49 with underlying conditions pursue booster shots and if they have any concerns or doubts about doing so to discuss those along with the benefits of receiving another shot with their healthcare provider. People in high-risk occupations including first responders, healthcare workers, educators, food and agriculture workers, manufacturing, corrections, postal workers, public transit and grocery store workers are also advised to get a booster.

The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines remain under consideration by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for any booster recommendations. In addition, its advisory committee on vaccines will be meeting later this month to address a possible expansion of the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine to include children 5-11 years old.

Next week the Ash Way Park and Ride in Lynnwood will transition to be a testing and vaccination site. Beginning Wednesday, Oct. 13 the site will be vaccination-only on Wednesdays and Thursdays of each week from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. First and second doses, along with booster shots, will be available there. The site will then be testing-only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during those same hours.

The booster shots will be accessible for individuals who are moderately to severely immunosuppressed. Proof of vaccination, in the form of a card or online record, and eligibility is required in order to receive a booster shot.

Vaccinations there will be done by appointment only at this time. To register for appointments, people can go to the health district’s vaccination website or call 425-339-5278 during regular business hours Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The vaccines available onsite will primarily be Pfizer, with the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines also present as supplies allow.

Plans are also being finalized to soon bring another similar vaccination and testing location to Snohomish County.

The infection case rate in the county is “coming down a little bit, but not rapidly,” Spitters said. The rolling 14-day case rate as of Saturday, Oct. 2 stood at 394 people per 100,000 residents which was a slight decrease from the previous week’s rate. “We remain in a high transmission category by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention parameters and there’s no change in any of our recommendations or requirements related to COVID prevention.”

— By Nathan Blackwell

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