During a Tuesday media briefing: Mike Fong (top left), chief recovery and resilience officer for Snohomish County; Jason Biermann (top right), Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management director; and Dr. Chris Spitters (bottom right), Snohomish Health District health officer. (Snohomish Health District)

During a Tuesday media briefing: Mike Fong (top left), chief recovery and resilience officer for Snohomish County; Jason Biermann (top right), Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management director; and Dr. Chris Spitters (bottom right), Snohomish Health District health officer. (Snohomish Health District)

Could another winter COVID-19 wave be on the way?

The top local health officer says vaccination is the primary way to avoid another coronavirus surge.

EVERETT — Local health officials are again warning of a potential winter wave of COVID-19 that could tighten the screws on an already strained hospital system.

However, Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said a few factors could prevent it: a dramatic increase in vaccinations and a tight adherence to prevention measures, like masking in public and avoiding large gatherings.

And while the flu season last year was minimal, due largely to pandemic-spurred social distancing, the retreat in strict protocols could lead to simultaneous flu and coronavirus surges, Spitters said Tuesday at a media briefing.

“That could again throw hospitals back into a worse state than they were recently, and really they remain struggling, but they’re coming off of the peak,” he said. “But we could go right back there or even beyond.”

The health district has reported declining case numbers in the county. And as of Tuesday, there were 76 COVID-positive patients in local hospitals, with 19 on ventilators. There were over 100 being treated in hospitals at times this summer. Spitters said medical centers have been running at about 90% capacity. Staffing shortages “remain the primary bottleneck in health care system capacity,” he added.

Getting vaccinated against COVID, getting a COVID booster shot and getting vaccinated against the flu “will mitigate winter hospitalization surge, protect individual health and help us, as a society, get through facing these two respiratory viruses,” Spitters said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine for certain groups six months after their second dose. This includes adults over 65, adults in long-term care facilities and people 50 to 64 who are at high risk of severe illness due to underlying health conditions.

That means thousands of Snohomish County residents may now be eligible for booster shots. The Snohomish Health District recommends those eligible reach out to their health care provider or pharmacy for more information.

The health district last week specifically urged vaccination for pregnant people or those trying to become pregnant. As of Sept. 25, CDC data show just over 32% of pregnant people were fully vaccinated.

The county recently reached a pair of vaccination milestones. The millionth dose was administered over the weekend, Spitters noted. And now 75% of residents 12 and over have received at least their first dose. In King County, by comparison, over 85% have received the first shot; it’s over 72% in Skagit County.

In recent months, about 10,000 Snohomish County residents each week have been getting either their first or second dose. To increase that number, the Ash Way Park & Ride in Lynnwood will become a joint testing and vaccination site, Spitters said. Beginning Oct. 13, the site will only offer vaccinations by appointment on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and only testing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The doses there will primarily be Pfizer, but Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will also be available.

Another similar site will soon come online, the health officer noted.

In the two-week period ending Oct. 2, there were 394 infections per 100,000 residents. The figures are down from a high of more than 480 over the summer, but remain similar to the rate from late 2020.

Transmission remains high, Spitters said.

“Looking forward, people are going to want to ask, you know, ‘Where is it going?’” he said. “And I think only time will tell. Time and our choices.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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