by Carolyn Bick
Even as Washingtonians mark their calendars for April 15, the day everyone aged 16 and older in the state will be able to get vaccinated, the viral storm clouds on the horizon are growing darker.
In the last week, the average daily COVID case rate in King County alone has risen to 250 new cases per day, Public Health — Seattle & King County (PHSKC) Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin told listeners in an April 2 press conference. This represents a 26% increase from the week before, and an 86% overall increase from the beginning of this most recent rise, which likely represents a fourth wave beginning, Duchin said.
“Each of our waves was preceded by a holiday season … Now we’ve had spring break and Easter, and we are in the process of accelerating towards a fourth wave,” Duchin said, in response to a question at the end of the press conference from a KOMO reporter.
Health officials are seeing a large case rate increase among all age groups, except 65-74-year-olds, which saw a slower rate of increase in March. The lowest rate is currently among those aged 75 and older. The case rate increase is highest among 18-24-year-olds, which reflects not only increasing activity at home, but increasing rates of travel, including people who chose to travel during spring break, against health officials’ many warnings. Rates remain highest in South and Southeast King County.
Though Washington State’s current incidence rate of new cases stands at 148 cases per 100,000 people, state officials will not consider taking the state back into an earlier phase of reopening unless the incidence rate reaches 200 cases per 100,000 people. Duchin said that the state is on a trajectory to meet that incidence rate in the near future. The state’s incidence rate dashboard may be found here, though it should be noted that it has not been updated to reflect the most recent data. It only covers the period between March 9-22.
Duchin also flagged that spreading events have been on the rise among youth sports teams. Though teams are taking precautions on the field, the virus is spreading before and after sporting events, such as during team meals and travel to and from matches. This news comes one day after Seattle Public Schools (SPS) had reached a tentative agreement to return students in grades 6-12 to in-person learning on April 5. Teachers at Franklin High School walked out earlier this week to protest unsafe working conditions within the school building and the fact that they would have been “at risk of insubordination” had they tried to stay home to stay safe.
Duchin did not give many more details about sports teams spreading events, but the Emerald has followed up with PHSKC to ask about who on the teams is getting sick and how old they are.
Duchin also told listeners that more than 600 COVID cases caused by a variant of concern have been identified in King County, and that the number of cases caused by a variant of concern grows every day. These cases include not only the original three variants of concern — B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1 — but also the so-called California variants, B.1.427 and B.1.429, both of which spread more easily than the original novel coronavirus and may cause more serious illness. One predominant variant of concern is B.1.1.7, which Duchin said causes more severe illness and thus has a higher rate of lethality, and spreads more easily than the original novel coronavirus.
Because just six percent of all viral samples are sequenced, for each viral variant case, there are likely thousands more people who have developed COVID from a viral variant. Additionally, Duchin warned, 30% of all positive COVID cases come from people who report no contact with a sick or symptomatic person. This is known as “silent spread,” he said, and it has been shown that up to 50% of infected people spread the disease before they become symptomatic. This is why it is so important to continue to wear a well-fitted mask, avoid gatherings of and with unvaccinated people, and wash one’s hands.
Duchin also shared some good news regarding vaccines. In addition to successful efforts to reach Communities of Color via outreach events at places people within those communities felt safe, he also announced that people living unhoused in congregate settings became eligible for the vaccine this week.
“We are working to match homeless service sites with mobile vaccination teams. We estimate there are about 669 sites that may be appropriate for vaccination, and we are reaching these sites in the coming weeks as we get increasing vaccine supply with our partners to administer thousands of vaccinations to people experiencing homelessness, as well as their service provider staff,” Duchin said. “A lot of this work will be done through mobile teams that will be reaching encampments and the unsheltered populations.”
Duchin also said that the infrastructure has been in place to serve all eligible adults, as soon as the county had a sufficient vaccine supply. This, combined with the fact the county’s increased vaccine supply that “will be very close to where we think it needs to be, if sustained,” means that the county will finally be able to meet the demand of currently eligible people.
“We hope things continue to move in the right direction, because there are approximately 300,000 people currently eligible in King County,” Duchin said. “We estimate we need just over 100,000 first doses each week, between now and April 15, to adequately cover those currently eligible.”
He also said that PHSKC continues to focus on barriers to vaccine access, which includes English language barriers, transportation barriers, and difficulty in scheduling appointments
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