King County Public Health Officer Notes ‘Mixed Message’ on Reopening, Spread of New Coronavirus Variant

by Andrew Engelson

In an online press conference Friday, Jan. 29, Jeff Duchin, MD, the health officer for Public Health —  Seattle & King County said that while COVID-19 cases have declined in King County for the past three weeks, the current level of transmission still represents a “serious health threat.” Duchin said he expects that the more contagious and potentially more lethal B 1.1.7. variant, already discovered in Snohomish County, will be “likely be found in King County any day now.” Reacting to Gov. Inslee’s announcement this week that King County will be allowed to return to Phase 2 of Washington’s Road to Recovery Plan, Duchin acknowledged, “The mixed messaging is very challenging. We’re currently in a decline. And people are feeling good. But I need to remind everyone that we’re still at a high level even though we’ve come down.”

After two and a half months of rising cases that began in September, and peaked at 770 cases per day on Dec. 5, case incidence of COVID-19 began falling on January 9 and is now at a rate of 273 cases per day over the past week. Duchin noted that levels of transmission are still high, and still represent a “serious health threat.” He acknowledged that Gov. Inslee’s move to Phase 2 (which includes limited reopening of gyms and fitness centers and limited indoor dining at restaurants) was based on metrics including case rates and hospitalization, but metrics that were created prior to the discovery of the new variant.

Duchin was quick to highlight the dangers of a potential surge caused by the more contagious new coronavirus variant, comparing it at times to “falling off a cliff compared to falling off a curb,” and saying “when a variant takes off it will be more like an F16 [fighter jet] than a Cessna.”

When pressed by one reporter if he thought reopening restaurants and gyms across the county was reckless, Duchin said “reckless would be going too far.” He then acknowledged that “you can’t downplay the immense adverse impacts on the economy.” But Duchin then said of moving to Phase 2 just as the new variant is emerging: “We need to go forward with extreme caution. We’re skating forward into Phase 2 on a lake not knowing how thick the ice is.”

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” Duchin cautioned, urging people to continue limiting trips to places like grocery stores, wearing tight-fitting masks, limiting social gatherings to outdoors, and maintaining six feet of distance.

Regarding vaccinations, Duchin said that more than 200,000 doses of vaccine have been administered in the county so far and that for a key first priority group of health care workers, 85% of nurses and 77% t of physicians in King County have received at least the first dose of the vaccine. However, supply from the national level continues to be a huge bottleneck. Though a high of 73,000 doses arrived in the county last week, that dropped to 38,000 this week. Duchin noted that only 24% of people over 75 — who have a rate of death 220 times that of people ages 18 to 29 — have been vaccinated in the county so far.

South King County continues to be a concern, with Kent, Auburn, and Federal Way continuing to have the highest incidence rate in the county, Duchin said. To address that spread, the county announced today the creation of two community vaccination sites in the South End, at the ShoWare Center in Kent and at the General Services Administration (GSA) Complex in Auburn. The sites, which will open on Monday, Feb. 1, are expected to serve about 500 people per day and, Duchin said, will be especially “focusing on reaching older age groups 75 and older” as well as those who are 50 and older who live in multigenerational households and serve as caregivers to elders.

“With a limited supply of vaccine, we need to make the best use of every dose that comes to King County,” said Patty Hayes, Director of Public Health — Seattle & King County in a press release about the new vaccine sites. “The new high-volume vaccine sites will help us get life-saving vaccine to the highest risk King County residents. We’re taking an equitable approach by starting in the part of our county that’s been hardest hit by COVID-19.”

The vaccination sites in Kent and Auburn are by appointment only and will be open Monday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Beginning on Saturday, Jan. 30 at 8:00 a.m. residents can register for an appointment at Public Health’s vaccine website. Vaccines are available to those 75 and older or a family caregiver or home care worker taking care of someone age 50 or older who cannot live independently, or specific groups of people age 50 and older, including those unable to live independently and receiving care from a caregiver, relative, in-home caregiver or someone who works outside the home.

The new sites come on top of other mobile vaccination pop-ups, including one at International Community Health Services (ICHS) in the International District and other pop-ups staffed by the Seattle Fire Department across the city.

Addressing a question from a member of the community watching on the Public Health — Seattle & King County Facebook feed, Duchin noted that the county takes the racial inequities in the healthcare system and their impact on BIPOC communities seriously. “We’ve given a number of grants focused on racial inequities with an emphasis on BIPOC communities to help with outreach and education and to facilitate education and to facilitate access to the vaccine,” Duchin said. “And to help people understand where vaccines are available in their community as well as answer questions that have to do with fear or vaccine hesitancy.”

He noted that the county is working with “community navigators” to help build confidence in the vaccine and reach people who are skeptical due to a long history of inequities and racism in medicine and vaccine research.

According to Public Health — Seattle & King County spokesperson Kate Cole, the county has contracted with about 25 community navigators who are established leaders in their communities, most of them in the South End. They represent 22 different language communities and help with language translation, providing outreach to their communities and feedback to the county as well as helping elders apply to receive the vaccine and answer questions.

Regarding the proposed resumption of in-classroom instruction for pre-kindergarten through first grade in Seattle Public Schools, Duchin declined to say whether he thought it advisable, saying that if precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “are taken seriously,” he didn’t think spread in schools would be higher than in the general community.

When asked by the Emerald if, in light of outbreaks at the King County Jail in December and January, PHSKC would recommend that incarcerated people and staff should be vaccinated, Duchin said, “At this point, given the very limited number of doses available, we and most of our country are focusing on those that are at the highest risk of dying — and those are the older adults.

“But as more supplies become available we would expect to extend immunization to congregate settings, including homeless shelters and correctional facilities,” he said.

Andrew Engelson is News Director/Deputy Assistant at the Emerald. His journalism, essays, and writing have appeared in Crosscut, Real Change, Tin House, High Country News, Seattle Weekly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Times, Washington Trails, and other publications. He’s lived in Seattle’s South End for nearly 20 years and is passionate about telling the stories of the people who live in South Seattle and covering the issues they care about.

Featured image: Seattle Fire Department employees give COVID-19 vaccination pop-up in South Seattle. (Photo: by Alex Garland)

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