by Carolyn Bick
Cases of COVID-19 have slightly increased over the past two weeks in King County, which could be an indicator of the “storm clouds on the horizon” that Public Health – Seattle & King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin has been warning the public about throughout late February and March.
“We still have a serious threat,” Duchin said during an online Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC) press briefing on Friday, March 19. “We can’t give up on it now. As my friend Mike Osterholm says, ‘It’s too late to tap the breaks after your car is wrapped around the tree.’”
Duchin explained that the recent rise in cases may be a result of one or more of the new viral variants that have been spreading through the country and state, as well as people “liberalizing” their activities with the promise of incoming vaccines and relaxed statewide guidelines. On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that these guidelines will be relaxed even further on March 22.
As he and other health experts across the country have warned in the past, Duchin noted that one specific variant, B.1.1.7, will likely become the predominant form of the virus in Washington State by the end of the month. This variant, which originated in the United Kingdom, is significantly more contagious and there appears to be increasing evidence that it leads to more severe disease, making it a deadlier variant than the original novel coronavirus.
Moreover, Duchin reminded listeners, COVID-19 doesn’t just affect older folks. Young people have developed and continue to suffer from severe disease and long-term effects, and many have died from the illness.
“There is a lot that we don’t understand about this disease. … [There is data] that suggest that a significant number of people do have long-term health effects from COVID-19. It behooves all of us to avoid this infection, regardless of how old we are, to continue to do whatever we can do to stop the spread,” Duchin said. “It would be a shame if many people became infected over the next month or two, just as vaccines were about to become available.”
Duchin said that vaccine supply is set to “dramatically” increase in April.
Duchin also iterated that inequities in vaccine distribution persist along racial and geographic lines. However, he said, the County’s mass vaccination sites as well as smaller community outreach vaccination events are helping to close that gap. This week, the Emerald reported on PHSKC’s community navigator program, which partners with leaders in Communities of Color to assist under-served communities in accessing vaccines. There are no updates as of this writing about a proposed mobile program to vaccinate homebound elders in their own homes.
But the news wasn’t all bad: PHSKC has launched a Household Assistance Request program to mitigate the financial fallout for people who have to quarantine themselves. Duchin said that the program will provide a one-time payment for up to $1,500 for one household to cover rent, utilities, part of a mortgage, and more.
According to the program’s web page, anyone who lives in King County and has been diagnosed with or has been exposed to COVID-19 is eligible to receive a payment. No application is necessary. When a contact tracer calls a person who has been exposed or who has tested positive, this will start an enrollment process to determine that person’s eligibility.
A person does not need to be a citizen, and there is no income threshold the person must meet to qualify for the program. However, the person may not already be receiving federal benefits such as Section 8, must live in King County, and must be in quarantine or isolation once notified of a positive test or close contact. The Household Assistance Request program money may not be used to pay off car loans, credit cards, medical bills, insurance payments, tax payments, or any bills that exceed one month or are past due.
The United States Department of Health is funding the program, which will continue for as long as funds are available.
The Port of Seattle also announced in a March 19 press release that it has partnered with the State Department of Health, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Safeway/Albertsons to administer vaccines to workers at SeaTac Airport. The clinic will begin operations this week, with the ultimate goal of vaccinating 2,000 eligible people per week, though priority will be for frontline and essential workers, who face the greatest risk of infection.
As of March 17, the state has moved into Phase 1B Tier 2 of vaccine eligibility, which includes agricultural workers, food processing workers, fishing crews, and grocery store workers, as well as workers in public transit, firefighters, law enforcement and incarceration staff, and any other first responders. It also includes pregnant people over the age of 16, as well as people over the age of 16 who have a disability that puts them at high risk of severe COVID-19 illness. On March 31, eligibility will be expanded to include restaurant and food service workers, construction workers, and others in certain critical roles.
Featured Image: People receiving vaccinations at the City of Seattle COVID-19 vaccination site at Lumen Field. Photo courtesy of Lumen Field.
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