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King County health official: 'Good chance' we'll be closer to normal life this summer; risk remains

Seattle Post-Intelligencer logo Seattle Post-Intelligencer 3/5/2021 By Becca Savransky, SeattlePI
a woman talking on a cell phone © Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

About a year after the coronavirus started to spread rapidly in King County, people have reason to be "cautiously optimistic," a county health official said Friday.

But, the region is far from in the clear, said Dr. Jeff Duchin of Public Health — Seattle & King County. If people don't keep up with safety protocols, it could get much worse once again.

"We are in a much better place today than we were a month ago," Duchin said during a news briefing Friday. "With continued attention to COVID-19 prevention and increasing vaccination, there is a good chance we will be much closer to normal life this summer. However, our case rates have stopped decreasing and the more infectious and possibly more severe variants are increasing."

Since January, cases in King County and across Washington had been declining. As of March 4, the county was seeing an average of 122 new cases per day over the previous seven days, according to incomplete data. That was down from more than 700 new cases reported per day in December during the third surge. Hospitalizations and deaths have also been declining in the county.

The county is seeing significantly lower numbers of outbreaks and cases in long-term care facilities. Cases have fallen the fastest among adults 75 and older since the middle of February, which is likely a reflection of more older adults getting vaccinated, Duchin said.

But, some of those decreasing trends across the county are now slowing.

"A few weeks ago I suggested that our situation is like being in the eye of a hurricane and although the forecast may have improved, we still need to prepare for potentially stormy weather ahead," Duchin said. "After a relatively long and steep downhill ride, we have a warning light on the dashboard that we need to pay attention to. Over the past two weeks, the recent decline in new cases has flattened out."

Duchin said the plateau started about two weeks after the region moved into Phase 2, allowing more businesses to reopen including indoor dining at limited capacity. The county will be monitoring to see whether cases or hospitalizations start to go up again in the coming weeks.

Until more people are vaccinated, the region remains vulnerable to seeing a rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths — especially with the new variants circulating.

"If we get too comfortable and don't suppress the spread of COVID-19, if we travel and gather to the extent we did during the summer and winter holiday seasons, we will increase the risk of experiencing another large surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths this spring," Duchin said. "So we're getting closer, but we're not out of danger yet."

In recent weeks, Washington and King County have been ramping up vaccination efforts. In King County, 378,925 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, about 20.5% of the population. About 11.5% of people in the county, or 213,023 people, have been fully vaccinated with both doses of the vaccine.

In total, King County providers have administered 591,948 vaccine doses. As of March 3, the county had given an average of 14,265 doses per day over the past seven days, up significantly from the end of February, when the county was giving an average of fewer than 10,000 doses per day.

More than 70% of licensed healthcare workers have received at least one dose of the vaccine. About 71% of people 75 and older in the county have received at least one dose, along with 65% of people ages 65 to 74.

"We're continuing to see progress," Duchin said, "but we know that the supply of vaccine will continue to be a challenge for us."

The county has nearly 400 providers enrolled to distribute vaccines. But this week, only about 24 were able to receive first doses.

That is due to both limited supply and because "the vast majority of doses were going to that second dose administration," Duchin said.

"That problem will improve over the coming weeks and we will have more first doses available as time goes on, but that just gives you a sense of the challenges that we're facing," he said.

Washington officials are hopeful the state's vaccine allocation will increase in the coming weeks, especially with the recent approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna options.

"We're hopeful we will see larger increases over the coming weeks and months," Secretary of Health Umair Shah said during a news briefing earlier this week. "Especially with President Biden's announcement that he wants to see all Americans at least have access or completing vaccine by the summer."

Washington is also nearing its goal of vaccinating 45,000 people per day. According to the most recent data, the state gave an average of more than 43,000 doses per day over the seven days prior to March 1. The state also exceeded 60,000 doses on two days at the end of February.

Still, Washington continues to receive far fewer vaccines than providers are requesting. Deputy Secretary of Health Lacy Fehrenbach said next week's allocation is about 100,000 fewer doses than what providers have asked for.

The state earlier this week also made teachers and child care workers eligible to get their vaccines after a directive from President Joe Biden telling states to prioritize educators. Officials are hopeful this will make teachers and staff feel more comfortable returning to school, though Gov. Jay Inslee has said multiple times vaccines aren't a necessity for districts to reopen school buildings.

Inslee also announced Thursday the state hopes to move to the next tier of its vaccine rollout on March 22, making grocery workers, first responders and other critical workers eligible to receive the shot.

In the weeks following, the state hopes to open eligibility up to people living with two or more comorbidities and to people living in congregate settings. The timeline is tentative and will be based on the supply of vaccine the state receives from the federal government.

Health officials are also urging people who are eligible to take whichever of the three vaccines are available to them.

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