Weekly COVID briefing: As county case rates surge, chief health officer advises mask upgrade

Dr. Chris Spitters

The omicron variant of COVID continues its surge through Snohomish County. That’s the latest news from this week’s county COVID-19 briefing. Last week, more than 5,500 new cases were reported, double the previous week and the highest number since the outbreak of the pandemic two years ago.

  •   Yes – omicron still appears to be a less-lethal strain than the others before it.
  •   Yes – county health professionals still agree most cases are less severe.
  •   Yes – death rates are still lower than in previous coronavirus waves.

Statewide, we have hit a record number of new cases – 35,000 a day. If this continues, Chief Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters said, upcoming numbers “will just blow the lid off the cases we’ve seen before.” But, if the omicron cases generally are less severe, how concerned should we be?

Highly concerned, said Spitters; “in the long run we all are likely to be exposed to this.” He warned that “the next three to four months are going to be difficult, especially the next month.”

The rate of new cases in the county has now hit 997 per 100,000 residents – that’s one out of every 100 people in the last two weeks. Spitters said that number could actually be as high as 5%, especially if people are not tested for mild cases or don’t report them.

The huge increases hit a health care system that Spitters told reporters is already “running on fumes.” The number of COVID patients hospitalized in the county has jumped from 34 on Christmas to 101 on Jan. 3. Experts predict hospitalizations may peak in mid-February into March, but at levels still below early peaks.

Getting an appointment to be tested now can take a week or more; waits for walk-in testing are several hours. Last week’s snow shut down the county’s testing and vaccine sites, and that meant about 2,500 people could not get tests; another 2,100 vaccinations were cancelled. The county is working with the state, said Spitters, to try to provide additional testing.

Burnout for medical staff is still an issue, as is hospital capacity. Providence Hospital in Everett reports it is postponing non-emergency surgery — the first time that has happened in the pandemic. We have reached out to Swedish Edmonds for data but have not heard back.

Spitters said the surge does not mean vaccination has failed, pointing out that the “vaccine is to protect you against severe disease, not to keep you from getting COVID.” Recent studies have shown that the omicron strain has mutated enough to get past some of the vaccine protections, but that vaccination still does help to make many cases less severe.

County Executive Dave Somers

That’s what County Executive Dave Somers found when he was diagnosed with COVID recently. His symptoms were “mild” and lasted about three days. Somers is fully vaccinated, has his booster and was following health recommendations but “I got it anyway,” he said.  The scary part, he added, is that his wife is immune compromised; a reminder that the virus is not about numbers, but about neighbors, families and friends.

To better protect against the omicron variant, Spitters told reporters that it is time to upgrade our masks. Buy an KN95 or KF94 or, he suggested, a simple blue hospital procedure mask and add a cloth mask on top of that. The KN95 and KF94 masks have three layers to better filter out the more easily transmitted omicron strain. Don’t, added Spitters, pull down your mask to cough, sneeze or talk, but only to eat or drink.

We asked if there is a significant difference being exposed to omicron if you dine outdoors vs. indoors when many outdoor tables are close together. His answer – “dilution is the solution to pollution,” the catch phrase meaning it is safer to eat where tables are more spread out and the space is well ventilated.

Other topics covered during the briefing:

Where are the hotspots for omicron COVID exposure?

Spitters said the health department does not have data on that. In the past, restaurants, bars and big events have been tagged as “super spreaders.”  Now, there are so many new cases, it is hard to pinpoint where most people are exposed.

Is it time to go back to remote learning in school?

Spitters: “There’s insufficient evidence of harm to children (right now) to pull them out of school… the best place for kids is to be in school.” He pointed out that most children have less severe cases with omicron. State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal has said there is no state plan to go to remote learning; that each district must decide based on its situation.

Changing the timeline on vaccine boosters-

The FDA has now authorized that instead of waiting six months to get a booster, people can get Pfizer booster shots five months after full vaccination. Spitters said federal officials have a better view on that than he or state officials have, and added that moving up the timeline “makes sense.”

Endemic vs. pandemic?

Some health care people have suggested that we are moving past the pandemic stage to the “endemic” stage of COVID – that it has become something we are going to have to find ways to live with. Spitters agrees, as he has before, that we are not going to eliminate COVID. The experience with the virus is so new and still relatively limited that we will continue to see surges, he said, but those surges will get smaller and further apart, and it will become a seasonal virus. However, right now, Spitters said, we’re still facing wave after wave of infection.

— By Bob Throndsen














  1. “vaccine is to protect you against severe disease, not to keep you from getting COVID”

    I’ve said this in MEN comments a year ago and have been censored.

    Vaccines are supposed to prevent an infection to the degree that the vaccinated won’t get so infected that they spread the infection. The CV-19 vaccines neither prevent infection or prevent spread. Therapudics prevent disease severity. This is a therapudic, not a vaccine.

    Am I making an anti-vax or anti-therapudic argument?

    1. Matt is arguing semantics. The facts are that vaccinated (and boosted) people are less likely to get Covid, and if they do get it, are less likely to get really sick and die. I have now 7 members of my extended family (all of them vaccinated and most boosted) who are infected~ all with mild or no symptoms, and all isolating and recovering at home.

      It should be beyond argument at this point~ Get vaccinated! Get boosted if you’re already vaccinated. Use common sense and disregard people who comb the internet looking for noise to obstruct us and prolong the pandemic.

      1. You’re arguing anecdotes. How does a fully triple-vaccinated Danish research station in Antartica suffer a crippling outbreak? Annecdotally, name another vaccine [like polio?] that works by only marginally reducing infection – reducing symptoms – without reducing communicability.

        Same viral load:

        Semantically, the statement, “vaccine is to protect you against severe disease, not to keep you from getting COVID” – being true and allowed to be said by the censors and big-pharma would have doomed the emergency use authorization of the CV-19 vaccines.

        1. As often is the case it seems Matt, you’re “misinterpreting” information:

          “The situation isn’t dramatic,” Joseph Cheek, a project manager for the International Polar Foundation, told the BBC.

          “While it has been an inconvenience to have to quarantine certain members of the staff who caught the virus, it hasn’t significantly affected our work at the station overall,” Mr Cheek said.

        2. Thanks for proving my point, Matt. Anyone can find anything on the internet to support their cause; now it’s a “crippling outbreak” in the Antarctic, supposedly somehow relevant to our conversation here in Edmonds. Yawn. There’s just too much outlandish stuff, outright fiction out there on the internet~ there’s even *proof* that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, that Venezuelans hacked our election and switched enough Trump ballots to Biden to “steal” the election! It must be true because we can find it on the internet!

          Back to Covid in Edmonds~ what impresses me the most, and ought to convince every skeptic, is the knowledge that the folks now in the ICUs and dying in hospital, they are overwhelmingly the unvaccinated. The vaccinated folks like my family either don’t get the Covid or they get it with few or no symptoms, thus avoiding both the ICU and death. Before the vaccines, I lost (as in dead) 4 friends and acquaintances to Covid. Today those deaths can be avoided. But some folks, sadly, have difficulty comprehending reality, and needless deaths are continuing to happen. Heartbreaking, really.

    2. Actually, the Salk polio vaccine does not prevent infection by poliovirus but prevents an infection from progressing to paralytic polio. The same is true of the influenza vaccine.

      Vaccines are usually administered prophylactically, that is to say. before symptoms appear, whereas therapeutics are usually administered after symptoms appear, or after exposure.

      1. Anne, right on. Viral Load is the amount someone is infected. Vaccines don’t prevent infection, but more [technically speaking] prevent viral load to the extent that the infection develops into symptoms that communicate to others.

        The Morning After Pill is a prophylactic – but is for after a conception. The rabies vaccine, another of mand examples, is usually administered after infection. I do not think any of this nuance matters, other than the fact that saying the vaccine does not prevent infection has been heresy and the discussion has been shut down.

        Roger, Is this just semantics? Mike, is this “contructive”[sic] [see below]?

        Annon, the vaccines did not prevent the spread among people fully-vaccinated and boosted. What point are you making? That Omicron is not serious enough to interrupt work?

  2. Please take this only as contructive criticism. I have ignored it through a variety of your posts in MEN comments. It is not all that big of a deal but for the fact that you use the term often. I believe that you mean “therapeutic” rather than “therapudic”.
    I am not sure when you were censored. I have seen you comments on a variety of issues over an extended period of time. As with the Dutch boy and the finger in the dike, you have complained and misrepresented things so often, I tend not to pay attention to your complaints about censorship.
    It is great to read that you and the county health experts do agree that COVID vaccines do not insulate a person from infection or transmission, but they do protect from serious illness and hospitalization.
    With regard to your question, I would appreciate you providing the answer, because I can’t figure it out. I do know that it is unrelated to the major issue at this time: vaccines, masks and social distancing work.

    1. Yes thanks! I realized that until about 5 years ago I couldn’t spell restaurant. I grew up very poor, dropped out, and am mostly self taught at many things. Thank you for your input and consistent kindness to people, Mike.

  3. Two years into this and we are back to mask debates and flattening the curve? Really? As far as challenging others to prove a negative, I’ll wait for the explanation on the spike in all cause mortality and hope for some semblance of transparency to emerge from this mess.

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