A “thank you” sign is seen near Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, where COVID-19 patients’ test results are available in about an hour. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

A “thank you” sign is seen near Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, where COVID-19 patients’ test results are available in about an hour. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Rule-breaking partiers are causing large rise in virus cases

Long wait times for test results are hampering efforts to contain the virus through contact tracing.

EVERETT — COVID-19 case rates continue to steadily climb after reaching a low point in late spring, driven in part by summer gatherings that have become hotbeds for infection transmission, Snohomish County’s top public health official said on Tuesday.

The county is now seeing about 80 cases per 100,000 people every two weeks — roughly four times the rolling average six weeks ago, when that number was at its lowest since the beginning of the pandemic, said Dr. Chris Spitters, the Snohomish Health District’s health officer.

Because the county remains in the second phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan for the state, people are limited to gathering with no more than five others outside of their household. That rule is being broken, though, fueling outbreaks.

Between June 20 and July 11, at least 82 cases were linked to at least three dozen social gatherings that were larger than allowed. The events, some of which drew as many as 40 people, were each connected to an average of five cases, Spitters said.

Public health workers have traced confirmed cases back to 30 separate gatherings on July 4.

“While it may seem as though a few extra people is no big deal, these findings show that it is, in fact, a big deal. There is very little margin for error with this virus and the health district is encouraging people to keep their social groups as small as possible. And no greater than five people outside the home in a week,” Spitters said. “Less people, less risk.”

Deaths and hospitalizations, though, aren’t increasing in step with case numbers, Spitters said.

Public health officials believe that’s because the cases are concentrated in younger age groups who are less likely to face severe illness as a result of contracting the new coronavirus. Of the nearly 550 new cases reported to the health district from June 28 to July 11, more than half were individuals under the age of 30, Spitters said.

Turnaround times for test results have increased, too, from just a few days to seven to 10 days due to mounting backlogs at processing labs, Spitters said.

Many local providers send specimens to regional commercial labs elsewhere in the country that are being inundated with tests from hot spots in Arizona, Florida and Texas.

Long wait times ultimately hamper the health district’s efforts to contain the virus through contact tracing. The district strives to reach a patient and all their close contacts within 24 hours of a positive test result; the district’s tracers are actually reaching about 60 percent of new cases within that time frame, according to the most recently available data.

The test result lags allow more time for people to continue to work, gather and go out before they know that someone close to them has contracted the illness.

“Just by definition, we’re losing some yardage in our game plan there,” Spitters said. “It’s a challenge to it and it will, in the long run, erode the effectiveness of our disease intervention efforts.”

Providence Regional Medical Center Everett and a few other local providers process specimens in house, which has kept wait times for their patients relatively low. At the hospital, results are typically available in about an hour, spokesperson Casey Calamusa said in an email.

Providence Medical Group clinics rely on LabCorp to process tests, and turnaround times for those results are four to five days, Calamusa said.

People awaiting test results should stay home, Spitters said.

Anyone who is tested should tell their close contacts to isolate until they’ve received the results, public health officials have said. If the test comes back positive, those contacts need to continue to isolate and also seek testing.

Those who have no symptoms but were recently exposed to COVID-19 must remain home for the full two-week isolation period, Spitters emphasized.

If a person receives a negative test result, he or she should still isolate at home for 72 hours after their symptoms resolve.

“Even though it’s not COVID,” he said, “that’s another virus that we’d like you to keep to yourself and not spread.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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