Snohomish County COVID-19 briefing: Wildfire smoke, flu season add to health complications

Washington Air Quality Advisory map for Tuesday.

Wildfire smoke, coronavirus and the flu season headline this week’s Snohomish County COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. What a perfect way to help observe September, which just happens to be Disaster Preparedness Month.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers added a little irony to the briefing: “Tt seems’, he says, “like we’ve been in a disaster all year.” But, there are glimmers of relief if we can navigate the rest of this week.

The Washington State Air Quality Index has slapped “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” air quality labels on the South County since last week. The National Weather Service has extended an Air Quality Alert into Thursday. That’s when weather forecasters predict rain in our area to help clean out the smoke.

Until that happens, County Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters, urges us to stay indoors or in air-conditioned spaces; especially those who already have respiratory conditions or who are recovering from the coronavirus. Those with asthma and coronary artery disease should be especially careful.

An unexpected result of the bad air means that the county’s two drive-thru COVID testing sites remain closed for at least the next 24 hours.  Those are the sites at Everett School District’s Memorial Stadium and at the Lynnwood Food Bank. Check the health district website for updates.

Another positive sign: The number of new coronavirus cases in the county continues to decline. Spitters cited that the “rolling new case rate” is down to 43.5 new cases per 100,000 people.  That is a drop of about 10 percent from the previous two-week period. Asked if he sees any impact from groups of people celebrating Labor Day, Spitters says “it’s a little early to see any signals” of that; we may know more by next week.

Last week, the Health District issued guidance that may allow some schools to bring students back for in-class learning, possibly as early as November. When asked what gives the health district the confidence to do that, Spitters says “the guidance to the schools is just that; a plan not a prediction.” He says there is widespread consensus from statewide expertise; pointing out that many schools already have some specials-needs students on campus.

“If we get two to three weeks downstream from Labor Day and we don’t have a change in direction of COVID numbers,” Spitters added, “then they can look at starting to layer in some students in class; small group by small group.”  But, he warns “we can’t predict where things are going to go; one or more waves of recurrent COVID in the community may cause us to pause or retreat from in person learning.” The health district holds phone briefings with school districts every two weeks.

Add on top of the coronavirus our upcoming flu season, and life is about to get more complicated. First, Spitters says that flu symptoms may mimic COVID, with the fever and cough appearing to be similar. It can be “very hard” to distinguish between the two; but patients with flu may notice their symptoms ‘very quickly’; it tends to take longer for coronavirus to appear. If you are not sure whether its flu or coronavirus, check with your doctor or a walk-in clinic.

Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, Everett Clinic

The county suggests that people get a jump on flu vaccinations. In 2018 — the most recent year with data — one of four children in Snohomish County got flu shots. For adults 18-65, the percentage was 40%. Seniors had the best vaccine rate at 60%. Spitters and Dr. Yuan-Po Tu from the Everett Clinic recommend that people get flu shots before the end of October, which can be the launch of the flu season. The vaccine is “not perfect and does not work for all people,” said Spitters; but “even if it is imperfect, it is highly recommended for everyone over 6 months old.” The goal is to avoid a “double wave,” with flu patients taking up hospital beds that coronavirus patients may need.

Tu says younger children and infants “have just about as high a hospitalization rate for flu as do older adults.” He warns that pregnant women and Native Americans often have more complications from the flu. He points out there are three vaccines specifically designed for seniors. Check with your doctor or walk-in clinic, which will recommend which may work better.  Medicare part ‘B’ covers the cost for most seniors and other low/no pay options may be available for all ages.

— By Bob Throndsen


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