County COVID briefing: Slight decline in cases, but hospitals stretched thin

“I would love to be at the tail end of the last surge,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers told reporters gathered at the weekly COVID briefing, but  “we are not there yet.” The county has seen a slight decline in the total number of cases – down from an all-time high of more than 13,000 cases in the past reporting period – to just under 12,000 now. County leaders told reporters that they still expect the extremely contagious omicron surge to peak by the end of this month. That is encouraging news, but not for area hospitals.

County Hospitalizations
Nov. 2021 – Jan. 2022

What we should expect, said County Chief Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters, is that in the next few weeks, hospitals will be stretched beyond their limits. At the time of the briefing Tuesday morning, Spitters said there “is only one intensive care unit bed available” in all of the county. A total of 222 COVID patients are now hospitalized – almost double the case load last week. Hospitalization, he added, tends to continue to increase for about two weeks after the case load peaks.

To help handle the load, National Guard members (Spitters did not say how many) will start work at Everett’s Providence Hospital, possibly as early as the end of this week. We’re “glad to see that.” he added, but hospitals still will need to do more to handle the case load. That may mean converting other rooms to handle overflow COVID patients, cutting the staff-to-patient ratio to stretch staff, or transferring patients out of Snohomish County to the nearest available bed. He urged people to save emergency room visits only for serious medical issues or injuries.

Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish County Chief Health Officer

Tuesday morning, the County launched a new indoor mass vaccination site at the Everett Mall. (Learn more at www.snohd.org/EverettMallVax.) It will be open seven days a week – 11:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and until 5 p.m. on Sundays. There will also be a new indoor testing site open in the next few days. Asked if the new testing site comes too late in the surge to help, Spitters told reporters it would have been more helpful earlier, then added that since we are still at the peak of the transmission rate, it “is not at all too late for more testing.”

The county says the home test kits it ordered should arrive by the end of the month. The priority will be to distribute to schools and long-term care facilities first.  When a reporter asked if people who take those tests and don’t report that they have COVID might skew the case numbers, Spitters said that was not a major concern; that the point was for people to have access to a test, then isolate and seek medical help if they are positive. He urged those who test positive to call 211  — the State Health Department’s COVID number — or visit wa211.org to get medical help or information.

Asked about a recent news report showing that a significant number of unvaccinated Snohomish, King and Pierce County residents are adamant that they will never get the shots, Spitters took a pragmatic stance. “There is certainly a group that are a hard ‘no’ on getting the vaccine, but the door is always open,” he said, adding that “efforts to push, push, push aren’t going to reach those folks.” But he reminded people that the vaccines are safe and effective, and that though some who don’t want the shots may feel they have legitimate concerns, “we’re in a crisis.”

Snohomish County numbers show that 67% of all county residents are fully vaccinated and that almost half of those also have had booster shots. Spitters believes that some of the 25% in the county who have not started any vaccines are children too young for the shots or have impediments to getting the vaccine.  He compared the higher COVID vaccine rate to the annual flu vaccine rate, which is between 50-60% “in a good year.”

Spitters said he still believes that the next two weeks will continue to show a decline in the number of COVID cases in the county, but it will be well into next month before we see an easing of the case load surge in hospitals.

—  By Bob Throndsen

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