EVERETT — Snohomish County is gearing up for its largest COVID-19 surge yet — one that has already infected thousands since Christmas, including the county’s top official.
In a briefing with reporters this week, Executive Dave Somers said he tested positive for the virus on Monday and that his mild symptoms had wound down.
“This is really despite being fully vaccinated,” he said. “I’ve had two shots of Moderna and a followup booster, and I’ve been very careful to follow public health recommendations. But I got it anyway.”
“The really frightening part of catching the disease, at least for me, is that my wife is immunocompromised,” he said. He expressed frustration toward people not wearing masks in public and “not taking a simple step to help all of us, whether it’s me or my wife or anyone else who’s immunocompromised.”
Somers’ infection, said county Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters, “really reflects what’s going on in the community.”
As the highly transmissible omicron variant tears through the United States, he said, breakthrough infections can be expected. Those cases shouldn’t be considered failures, he added, since vaccines still help keep illness mild, as it was for Somers.
Dr. Jay Cook, the chief medical officer at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, said Tuesday the hospital’s COVID-19 patients are still mostly unvaccinated.
“Please be ready for, and don’t be surprised by, frequent updates and guidance as this evolves,” Spitters said.
Despite recent data from the Snohomish Health District suggesting about 1% of residents have contracted the virus in the past two weeks, Spitters said, it’s probably more like 3% to 5% since many locals are struggling to get tested or have contracted the virus without symptoms.
The recent closure of county-run testing sites due to snowy weather represents “roughly 2,500 testing opportunities down the drain for this community,” Spitters said. “And about 2,100 vaccinations. So we’re that far behind.”
“Thank goodness we’re back open again and we’re in discussions with the state on how we might be able to expand capacity,” he said.
Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday said the dramatic rise in new infections and hospitalizations statewide demands “we up our game” to slow the virus’ spread.
He announced the state is buying 5.5 million at-home rapid COVID tests to distribute to the public for free. Of the total, 800,000 arrived from manufacturers this week, and the remaining 4.7 million are expected next week. The cost of the tests is $50 million.
The state plans to distribute 2 million to schools and local public health organizations. The other 3.5 million will be made available through an online portal, expected to launch next week. The state is partnering with Amazon to get tests delivered to homes at no cost. These are in addition to tests that the federal government, and some counties, are also planning to make available.
Inslee also said 10 million protective face masks, including KN95 and surgical masks, will be released from the state’s stockpile to schools and community organizations.
Like Spitters, Inslee said “the next few weeks are going to be difficult” and warned of potential disruptions to public services and private enterprise due to COVID-related staffing shortages.
But he said he’s not looking to reimpose restrictions or shutter schools like earlier in the pandemic.
“It is our firm and stalwart expectation that we will keep our schools open,” Inslee said at a news conference. Mandating boosters for teachers is not imminent, he said. Nor is requiring students be vaccinated, though a state panel is looking at it as a possibility in the future.
Until test kits are readily available, Spitters urged residents to defer getting tested if they’re not sick or haven’t been exposed. For those who are mildly ill and not at high risk of severe illness, “just think about staying home and trying to do a telehealth visit,” he said.
On its website, the health district had to re-scale graphs this week to display soaring infections. In Mukilteo, Marysville and the portion of Bothell inside the county, weekly case counts represented around 10% of the infections they’d seen through the pandemic.
Soaring case rates are evident, but Spitters said officials will have less-detailed information on where the disease is spreading this time around. With such high case counts, it’s harder to investigate a substantial portion of cases.
“Right now transmission is widespread. And wherever you are in public, indoors, it’s potentially a risk,” he said. “And that’s just the way it is.”
Spitters couldn’t give a breakdown of age groups getting sick, and although the district was reporting increased infections in youth, he said returning to remote learning now wouldn’t be a net positive.
Testing capacity may not get resolved, he said, until after this surge in infections, which is expected to peak in February or March. After that, Spitters said, he hopes the virus will become a more predictable and less devastating seasonal illness.
“A rational goal is not to eliminate COVID. That’s not in our future. We’re not going to declare unmitigated victory over this virus,” he said. “What we can do is have the outcome” that Somers experienced, “which is a mild case, not getting sick enough to need hospitalization or intensive care.”