King County May Be Skating on Thin COVID Ice, Public Health Officer Says

by Carolyn Bick

With Washington State entering Phase 3 and increasing COVID-19 cases — including brand-new variants of concern — both within King County and throughout the state, Public Health Seattle & King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said that the proverbial ice Washingtonians are skating on is “beginning to crack a bit beneath us.” He predicted a fourth wave may now be beginning.

Duchin said in an online press conference on Friday, March 26 that cases have been increasing since early March, and that last week, 200 new cases have been reported daily, which is up 43% from two weeks ago, when the latest rise began. Except in those aged 75 and older, cases are increasing among all age groups, and the younger age groups “have seen the sharpest increases in the last couple weeks,” Duchin said. Cases among adults aged 75 and older continue to decline, due to higher vaccination coverage.

Overall, as has been the case for most of the pandemic, case rates continue to be the highest in Southeast and South King County, including Covington, Enumclaw, Kent, and Federal Way. The case rates of different variants of concern continue to rise, too, Duchin said. These variants tend to be more contagious and cause more severe infection. 

In addition to new cases of the three existing variants of concern already identified in King County — B.1.1.7, B1.351, and P.1 — researchers have identified almost 200 cases of viral variant B.1.429 and 19 cases of B.1.427 variant. These two variants were first identified in California, and are prevalent along the West Coast, Duchin said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s webpage on variants of concern, both new variants are about 20% more transmissible than the original novel coronavirus, and may also be significantly more lethal

“There is a good chance we are looking at the beginning of a fourth wave,” Duchin said. “What I can’t predict is how big it will be and how much damage it will cause. A new surge will more likely primarily affect younger age groups who have lower risk for hospitalization and death than older adults, but who can suffer from serious infections.”

Hospitalizations are up, too, Duchin said. Last week, 51 King County residents were hospitalized with COVID-19, which represents a 20% increase from just one week before. This translates into “one person hospitalized every three hours and 20 minutes in King County,” Duchin said. Though this is still just one-sixth of what the County’s hospitalization rate was at the peak of the last wave in the autumn and winter— and deaths are now at two per day— because of these increase in cases, Duchin said, “hospitalizations and deaths may also increase to a lesser extent that is hard to predict, and they will be countered, to some degree, given the increasing numbers of people who are being protected through vaccination.”

In other COVID-19-related news, on March 24, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in a press release that the Rainier Beach and West Seattle testing sites will be converted to full-time vaccination sites starting March 31. This will allow the City to vaccinate about 3,000 more people per week at each site, for a total of 6,000 more vaccinations per week. Though community-based organizations are given priority access to each site, people who are eligible through Phase 1B Tier 4 may sign up for the City’s vaccination notification list. Residents may also call the customer service bureau at 206-684-2489 between Monday and Saturday, from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. for help filling out the form. Language assistance is also available over the phone. The State’s Phase Finder tool is available here.

Earlier this week, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a $600 million American Rescue Plan budget that includes several million dollars for continued public health response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. This includes $116 million for a “stepped-up” vaccination program, including additional mass vaccination sites, and more than $110 million for contact tracing, isolation and quarantine facilities, and other mitigation work.

And today the Seattle Times reported that the Seattle Education Association (SEA), which represents teachers and staff at Seattle Public Schools, ratified an agreement to bring elementary students back to the classroom for in-person learning starting on April 5. The district has yet to unveil a plan for offering in-class options for grades 6-12. Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee set a deadline of April 19 for all students in the state to be offered some form of in-class learning.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You may reach them here, and check out more of their work here and here.

Featured image: City of Seattle’s mass vaccination center at Lumen Field offers COVID-19 vaccines to those who qualify. Photo courtesy of Lumen Field.

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!