by Carolyn Bick
Washington State has avoided a post-Thanksgiving surge in COVID-19 cases, but the state — particularly its hospital system — isn’t in the clear yet.
In a press conference on Dec. 16, Washington State Department of Health (DOH) Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy shared graphs from the DOH’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard that show case counts and hospitalizations, including ICU bed occupancy, are levelling off. The Emerald has shared these graphs below. But the trends aren’t yet level, and the state must go beyond just flattening the curve, DOH Health Sec. Dr. John Wiesman said.
“We are not out of the woods yet, because disease activity has been so high this fall. We don’t just need to flatten the curve, we need to bend it down and lower the level of transmission,” Wiesman said. “We are still seeing new daily case numbers that are far higher than our peaks in the spring and summer, and our hospital system is still very strained.”
The graphs Lofy shared also show that even though case counts and hospitalizations are levelling off, deaths are still rising. The data also shows that the state’s hospital system continues to be strained, and that there is no room for a post-December holiday surge. The Emerald has included these graphs below.
The fact that there is no room for a surge continues to worry state health officials, Lofy and Wiesman shared. Wiesman specifically addressed this issue in the later question-and-answer portion of the press briefing, in response to a question from a Spokesman Review reporter.
“The hospital capacity is still very full. Our ICUs are very full. And it is especially our ICUs that are the first at-risk of being able to staff those,” Wiesman said. “All across the state, essentially, hospitals are very full of COVID patients — the largest number of COVID patients we have ever seen in this — and the important piece in this is that is true across every region at the same time. … We are very concerned, and a surge on top of where we are will very quickly overwhelm our hospitals.”
Right now, Wiesman said, just under 80% of the staffed acute care beds are full right now in state hospitals. Part of the way hospitals have accommodated for that capacity is by cancelling non-urgent procedures, “which means that procedures that folks have been waiting for — it could be heart valve replacement, it could be some cancer surgeries, knee, hip replacement — those are getting postponed,” Wiesman said.
“We are still at a very, very precarious time at our hospital capacity, which is why it is very important that people continue these prevention measures throughout the holiday season,” Wiesman said, referring to the prevention measures health officials have continued to champion, such as not gathering unmasked and not gathering indoors or in groups larger than five.
DOH Acting Assistant Sec. Michele Roberts said that the first portion of the first round of vaccine shipments have arrived in the state, with the second half expected next week. She said that the first round is going to healthcare workers and long term care facility residents, but that the state is waiting on “a vote from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices this weekend … in addition to the community input and the National Academy of Medicine framework” to finalize a vaccination schedule that will determine who is included in the next rounds of vaccinations.
“Also, we need to know about [ongoing vaccine] supply after Jan. 1, which is another piece that will help us understand how many doses and how many people. We’ve got population estimates that we are constantly working to refine,” Roberts said, in response to a Public Radio reporter’s question.
In response to a Yakima Herald reporter’s question, Roberts also explained the data-sharing agreement the state has hammered out with the federal government. She explained that one of the requirements for the federal government to supply the vaccine is that states report back to the federal government about “who is getting the vaccine and what is happening with our allocation of vaccine — so, how many doses have been used, how many we still have in inventory.
“So, one of the requirements to do that was the data use agreement with the common piece around how are we sharing data, what privacy protections [exist], and what are the requirements around that,” Roberts said.
She said that health officials “did have concerns” about the first draft of the agreement, because it “was not explicit enough” with regards to privacy and how the data would be used. However, after some “back and forth,” the federal government put out new versions of the data use agreement, as well as some frequently asked questions that “really helped alleviate our privacy concerns around the data.”
She also said that the other issue sorted out in those conversations was what data needs to be submitted to the federal government. The federal government’s case, she said, was to get more personally identifiable data about who is being vaccinated, which is different data than the aggregate information the state would usually share with the federal government. She said that through discussion, the state has gotten confirmation that the state can submit “largely de-identified data — so, not names or addresses, but just information on who is getting vaccinated as far as numbers … but not personally identifiable information.”
Roberts did not specify whether the data submitted will include documentation status and exactly what kinds of data will be shared, but the Emerald has followed up with the DOH to ask this question.
The Emerald has also found what appears to be a recent version of the federal data usage agreement on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website and has asked the DOH whether it is the most recent version that the state signed. The agreement includes a graphic that shows what information will be given to the federal government.
According to the graphic, which the Emerald has included below, this does not include name or address. It also appears that documentation status is not asked or recorded and that personally identifiable data will go through encryption and redaction, before it gets to the federal government.
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them on Twitter, and check out their other work here and here.
Featured image is the current case rate from the DOH’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard.
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