Weekly COVID briefing: As county case rates surge, chief health officer advises mask upgrade

Dr. Chris Spitters

The omicron variant of COVID continues its surge through Snohomish County. That’s the latest news from this week’s county COVID-19 briefing. Last week, more than 5,500 new cases were reported, double the previous week and the highest number since the outbreak of the pandemic two years ago.

  •   Yes – omicron still appears to be a less-lethal strain than the others before it.
  •   Yes – county health professionals still agree most cases are less severe.
  •   Yes – death rates are still lower than in previous coronavirus waves.

Statewide, we have hit a record number of new cases – 35,000 a day. If this continues, Chief Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters said, upcoming numbers “will just blow the lid off the cases we’ve seen before.” But, if the omicron cases generally are less severe, how concerned should we be?

Highly concerned, said Spitters; “in the long run we all are likely to be exposed to this.” He warned that “the next three to four months are going to be difficult, especially the next month.”

The rate of new cases in the county has now hit 997 per 100,000 residents – that’s one out of every 100 people in the last two weeks. Spitters said that number could actually be as high as 5%, especially if people are not tested for mild cases or don’t report them.

The huge increases hit a health care system that Spitters told reporters is already “running on fumes.” The number of COVID patients hospitalized in the county has jumped from 34 on Christmas to 101 on Jan. 3. Experts predict hospitalizations may peak in mid-February into March, but at levels still below early peaks.

Getting an appointment to be tested now can take a week or more; waits for walk-in testing are several hours. Last week’s snow shut down the county’s testing and vaccine sites, and that meant about 2,500 people could not get tests; another 2,100 vaccinations were cancelled. The county is working with the state, said Spitters, to try to provide additional testing.

Burnout for medical staff is still an issue, as is hospital capacity. Providence Hospital in Everett reports it is postponing non-emergency surgery — the first time that has happened in the pandemic. We have reached out to Swedish Edmonds for data but have not heard back.

Spitters said the surge does not mean vaccination has failed, pointing out that the “vaccine is to protect you against severe disease, not to keep you from getting COVID.” Recent studies have shown that the omicron strain has mutated enough to get past some of the vaccine protections, but that vaccination still does help to make many cases less severe.

County Executive Dave Somers

That’s what County Executive Dave Somers found when he was diagnosed with COVID recently. His symptoms were “mild” and lasted about three days. Somers is fully vaccinated, has his booster and was following health recommendations but “I got it anyway,” he said.  The scary part, he added, is that his wife is immune compromised; a reminder that the virus is not about numbers, but about neighbors, families and friends.

To better protect against the omicron variant, Spitters told reporters that it is time to upgrade our masks. Buy an KN95 or KF94 or, he suggested, a simple blue hospital procedure mask and add a cloth mask on top of that. The KN95 and KF94 masks have three layers to better filter out the more easily transmitted omicron strain. Don’t, added Spitters, pull down your mask to cough, sneeze or talk, but only to eat or drink.

We asked if there is a significant difference being exposed to omicron if you dine outdoors vs. indoors when many outdoor tables are close together. His answer – “dilution is the solution to pollution,” the catch phrase meaning it is safer to eat where tables are more spread out and the space is well ventilated.

Other topics covered during the briefing:

Where are the hotspots for omicron COVID exposure?

Spitters said the health department does not have data on that. In the past, restaurants, bars and big events have been tagged as “super spreaders.”  Now, there are so many new cases, it is hard to pinpoint where most people are exposed.

Is it time to go back to remote learning in school?

Spitters: “There’s insufficient evidence of harm to children (right now) to pull them out of school… the best place for kids is to be in school.” He pointed out that most children have less severe cases with omicron. State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal has said there is no state plan to go to remote learning; that each district must decide based on its situation.

Changing the timeline on vaccine boosters-

The FDA has now authorized that instead of waiting six months to get a booster, people can get Pfizer booster shots five months after full vaccination. Spitters said federal officials have a better view on that than he or state officials have, and added that moving up the timeline “makes sense.”

Endemic vs. pandemic?

Some health care people have suggested that we are moving past the pandemic stage to the “endemic” stage of COVID – that it has become something we are going to have to find ways to live with. Spitters agrees, as he has before, that we are not going to eliminate COVID. The experience with the virus is so new and still relatively limited that we will continue to see surges, he said, but those surges will get smaller and further apart, and it will become a seasonal virus. However, right now, Spitters said, we’re still facing wave after wave of infection.

— By Bob Throndsen














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