One Year After First COVID-19 Outbreak, County Health Officials Cautiously Optimistic

by Andrew Engelson

Nearly one year after the first outbreak of COVID-19 in King County and the nation, public health officials and King County Executive Dow Constantine say they are cautiously optimistic about the spread of the virus. Effective prevention measures combined with slow but steadily increasing vaccinations have the potential to “put the pandemic in the rear view mirror,” said Public Health Officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin in an online press briefing on Friday. But concerns remain, including the discovery of two new SARS-CoV-2 strains in the county, and pressure among those tiring of restrictions to let up on prevention strategies such as masking and limits on gatherings.In addition, inequitable access to vaccines remains a concern.

“It’s important to acknowledge that COVID-19 has starkly highlighted and exacerbated structural inequities and the resulting health disparities in our society,” Duchin said. “Communities of color experiencing long standing poor health outcomes from the effects of racism, from social, economic, and environmental disadvantage and from lack of access to healthcare have been the hardest hit by COVID-19, with higher rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.”

One year after an outbreak at the Life Care Center long term care facility in Kirkland became the first outbreak in King County and the nation and eventually took the lives of 37 people, executive Constantine marked the milestone by noting that the county has experienced 82,000 cases of COVID-19, more than 5,000 hospitalizations, and close to 1,400 deaths. But he also observed that of 97 of the highest population metro areas in the U.S., the greater Seattle area had the second-lowest rate of cases per capita, exceeded only by Honolulu, Hawaii.

“That’s an astonishing success,” Constantine said. “Consider that we had no road map, consider that we had very little help from our national government. Our success was not an accident.” He pointed to residents following public health guidelines, quick closure of schools and businesses, and a variety of measures.

Vaccinations continue across the county, with officials noting that 327,000 people (about 1 in 6 adults) have now received at least one dose, and 166,000 people have been fully vaccinated. Duchin said that more than 50% of people over age 60 have received at least one dose and more than 60% of those over age 70 have received at least one dose.

But noting that two new, more contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants, B.1.1.7 and B.135, are known to be circulating in the county, Duchin warned that now was not the time to become complacent and that county residents should continue to wear masks, wash hands, and avoid gathering with people outside of their household. “If we let up on our COVID prevention measures, and we let COVID transmission accelerate again, and we let the variants that spread more quickly gain momentum,” Duchin said, “they can quickly start to multiply and increase and lead to another wave of infections this spring.”

Duchin was enthusiastic about the announcement this week that the FDA advisory committee had given emergency authorization to a third vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson. He noted that this vaccine is “highly effective in preventing severe disease,” has fewer side effects than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, requires just one dose instead of two, and does not have to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures. He noted that although there has been a widely quoted figure of 66% efficacy, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 85% effective at preventing life-threatening and serious cases. Though supply might be limited for the first few months, Duchin was optimistic the new vaccine should prove a formidable tool and advised people not to concern themselves over which vaccine to receive: “If a vaccine is available, take it.”

Regarding the issue of school re-opening, Duchin said “It’s important to remember we’re still having a serious outbreak. We know this virus transmits where people come together, particularly in closed, indoor air spaces. So there need to be significant precautions in place in order to get back to school safely. But with those precautions, I think the consensus is nationally that it can be done.”

“The decision about when a school comes back to in-person learning is really one that has to weigh the risks of children being out of school and the benefits of in-school learning with the risk of transmission once in-person learning begins.”

Seattle Public Schools has delayed the opening of in-person learning for pre-K through first grade students until at least March 8 while the district continues to negotiate with the Seattle Education Association, the union representing teachers and other staff, over conditions of the return to classrooms. This week, the Emerald reported that 77% of families at Campbell Hill elementary in the Renton School District, a school with a very high percentage of BIPOC families, are choosing not to send their children back to in-person learning.

In other COVID-19 related news, the City of Seattle announced it has set up a system to distribute excess vaccines to community members who are 65 and older and live in ZIP codes that are most disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. People who are 65 and older can visit this website and fill out information. Though the city would not confirm precisely which ZIP codes qualify, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s office said in an email that many areas of South Seattle would likely qualify.

At around 4:30 p.m. each day, the City of Seattle will send out an Alert Seattle text message to some or all individuals on the standby list notifying them that there are unused COVID-19 vaccine doses. If people have not received their first dose of the vaccine and they are able to make it to the location within 30 minutes, they should click on a link in the text message and then click “YES.” Only people who can make it to the location within 30 minutes should respond.

Andrew Engelson is the Emerald’s News Director/Deputy Assistant.

Featured Image: MTA employee Severin Smith receives the COVID-19 vaccine at the Jacob K. Javits Center on Wed., January 13, 2021. Photo by Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit via Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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