County Not Out of Woods Yet, As Case Rates Plateau and Variant Gains Traction

by Carolyn Bick

Though cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations are down significantly from where they were before the third wave of virus activity in autumn 2020, King County isn’t out of the woods yet. In a virtual press conference on March 5, Public Health – Seattle & King County’s Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said that the case rate and hospitalization rate have plateaued, and that at least one viral variant, B.1.1.7, remains poised to become the predominant variant in the state and throughout the country, based on expert projections.

Duchin’s warning comes on the heels of this week’s good news that teachers, school staff, and childcare workers are now eligible to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, and that certain essential personnel, including grocery store workers and agricultural workers, will become eligible on March 22. Though Duchin said that “we are in a much better place than a month ago,” case rates are still higher than they were at the beginning of the autumn surge. Then, King County saw about 76 new cases per day. Currently, it’s seeing about 133 new cases per day. Deaths still remain at about three people per day, or one death every 8 hours, Duchin said.

While he didn’t overtly make the connection, Duchin noted in his remarks that the flattening out of case rates, after an initial steep drop, started about two weeks after moving into Phase II of the State’s Roadmap to Recovery plan. Phase II allows significantly more public interaction, including dine-in at restaurants, gym use, and religious service gatherings.

“We will be watching closely for any signs in an increase in cases or an increase in hospitalizations that typically lags changes in case rates by several weeks,” Duchin said.

He also said that, despite the lower case rates, “disparities in the impacts of COVID-19 across the county continue, with rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that are two to three times higher in South King County, compared to communities in Central and North Seattle, Shoreline, Bellevue, Issaquah, Mercer Island and the Eastside, and Eastern King County.”

“We are taking action in collaboration with community partners to try and close these gaps in vulnerable areas of our community,” Duchin said.

Duchin highlighted the fact that white elders are much more likely to have received a vaccination than Elders of Color, a subject the Emerald recently covered in-depth. For adults 65 and older, 57% of white elders have received a single dose of the vaccine, compared with 53% of Asian American elders, 45% of Latino elders, and 39% of Black elders who have received a single dose of the vaccine. However, among Indigenous elders, Alaskan Native elders, and Native Hawai’ian and Pacific Islander  elders, “the gaps have closed,” Duchin said. Among Indigenous elders and Alaskan Native elders who are 65 and older, 64% percent have received the vaccine. Among Native Hawai’ian and Pacific Islander elders, that figure is 75%.

Duchin said that wealthier places tend to have high vaccination rates, such as Vashon Island, with a 96% vaccination rate. But “rates decrease as we go south,” with 62% in Southeast King County and 56% in South King County. He said that Public Health workers are trying to close these gaps by working with community partners, an effort the Emerald also touched on in the article referenced above. 

Duchin also said that genetic sequencing has identified more viral variants across the state. As of March 3, there are now 43 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and B1.351 variant in King County. However, it is likely there are more than just these cases present, Duchin said.

“Only a small proportion of all cases are being sequenced, currently — about 2.7% of all cases since January of this year. Both of these variants of concern are more transmissible. The B.1.1.7 variant may also cause more serious infections,” Duchin said. “We are only likely identifying a very small portion of these cases, given the amount of sequencing that is taking place, and most of the SARS-CoV-2 viruses that are circulating are predicted to be the B.1.1.7 variant sometime this month.”

Duchin said that people should not start to act like things are back to normal, because they are anything but. 

“Letting up on important COVID-19 prevention measures too soon is like jumping from an airplane and throwing off your parachute before you reach the ground,” Duchin said. “COVID-19 precautions need to persist, along with increasing vaccination coverage over time. That will decrease the risk of a fourth wave.”

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.

Featured image courtesy of the CDC via Unsplash.

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