by Andrew Engelson
In an online press briefing on Friday, Nov. 20, Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health — Seattle and King County (PHSKC) reported that cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations across the county have spiked in the past two weeks. In response, the County’s top health official made an urgent plea to residents to strictly limit social gatherings in advance of Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
Duchin noted Friday morning that King County saw a one-day spike of 804 cases and that the average rise in cases has been 581 each day over the past week — a disturbing trend that points to a potential exponential outbreak if people don’t take precautions now. He also noted that positive test rates are now up to 7%, up from a rate of 2% in September. “This is consistent with our cases reflecting an increase in transmission, not just more testing,” Duchin said.
Also worrisome are rising numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations, which threaten to overburden the local health care system. Duchin noted there are now 250 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in King County and that the rate of hospitalization has risen 50% over the past two weeks.
“The risk of acquiring COVID-19 today is higher now than it has ever been locally and in many parts of the country,” he said. “Every day that we as individuals put off taking the necessary actions to stop the spread of COVID-19 leads to additional medical suffering and economic pain.”
Though Duchin praised recent steps taken by Gov. Jay Inslee to prohibit indoor activities at restaurants and gyms, Duchin emphatically stressed that this alone would not be enough to prevent the pandemic from spiraling out of control.
“We all need to stop social gatherings with people outside of the household — people we don’t live with — for the time being,” he said. “And this means friends and relatives alike. Anyone who doesn’t live in your home. We need to limit our exposure to others and limit our activities as much as possible in all aspects of our lives.”
Duchin believes the upcoming holiday season is especially concerning. “If people travel or get together for Thanksgiving celebrations or other get-togethers,” he said, “we could see an explosion of COVID-19 causing human suffering unlike anything we’ve experienced in modern times.”
Communities in the south and southeast areas of King County continue to be hardest hit by the pandemic, Duchin noted. “The degree of transmission has been highest in South King County, in communities along the I-5 corridor including Auburn, Federal Way, Renton, Tukwila, and Southeast King County,” he said. “Those same communities that have been disproportionately affected with more cases, higher rates of hospitalization since the beginning — are still what you might call hotspots. But the disease is widespread and the increases are widespread, affecting all areas of the county.”
Data from the PHSKC website indicates that rates of infection continue to be higher among People of Color in King County, especially among Black, Hispanic, and Pacific Islander populations. The Emerald reported earlier this week that in response to the surging number of cases in South King County, PHSKC has opened a new, free walk-up COVID-19 testing site in Highline.
Duchin was guardedly optimistic about progress toward a vaccine, but reiterated that it was many months away and that for now, the best thing individuals can do is to only gather with those you live with, reduce interactions in public or crowded indoor spaces, and continue to wear masks, wash or sanitize hands, and frequently clean surfaces.
“We’ve had some preliminary very good news recently on the vaccine front that can help us get the outbreak under control over time — so there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Duchin said. “But first we need to get through the next few months. We know what works to stop the spread of COVID-19. … We don’t have to follow the path of pain that so many other communities are experiencing.”
Some of the highest-risk activities, Duchin noted, are social gatherings, parties, weddings, funerals, and faith-based gatherings.
He also noted that testing is proceeding at a brisk pace, with more than 650,000 tests performed in King County over the course of the pandemic. Duchin emphasized that while the system hasn’t yet been overwhelmed, priority is being given to those who have symptoms, those who have been around people known to have COVID-19, and those who suspect having been around someone with COVID-19. Duchin emphasized that people should not be proactively taking tests in order to make plans to travel or gather with people outside their household.
Duchin also reported that King County has a three-person team working on a report that will begin to map out a vaccination plan, but he noted that primary responsibility for managing any COVID-19 vaccination effort lies with the State of Washington. He pointed out that one of the potential vaccines requires ultra-cold temperatures, and in response to a question, stated he believes the county has enough of these specialized refrigerators to meet potential vaccination needs.
Though the death rates remain fairly low and stable (Duchin observed that the median age of those who’ve died is around 80) the disease can still have serious long-term effects, and Duchin also noted that there’s often a three-week lag time between rises in cases and rises in death rates.
Despite the current spike in cases, Duchin remained optimistic that King County could avoid the surges in hospitalization happening in other parts of the country. “We just went too fast, we did way too much, and we did not face the reality of this epidemic in the way that we should have,” he said. “We have no choice but to do better. I hope everyone will join me in doing everything possible to minimize your contact with other people in the community at this time and help us bring this down to a manageable level once again.”
Andrew Engelson is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor.
Featured image: A medical staffer carries a used test back to the testing van at Rainier Beach’s Atlantic City Boat Ramp novel coronavirus testing site in Seattle, Washington, on April 22, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)