EVERETT — Nearly every COVID-19 metric is pointing in the wrong direction for Snohomish County.
The county’s case rate is the second-highest it’s ever been. Unlike the previous spike in virus activity, infections are rising among the most vulnerable populations, including those at long-term care homes. And hospitalizations from the virus are trending upward.
On Tuesday, local leaders warned that if the increase continues, we could see renewal of tight restrictions, akin to last spring.
“I really can’t stress this enough: If you want to prevent another shutdown, please wear a mask, social distance and limit any unnecessary gatherings,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers told reporters Tuesday.
In Olympia, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state doesn’t need a stay-home order to flatten case counts. Rather, he encouraged Washingtonians to wear masks, even in private settings.
The state’s battleground with the virus has shifted to home settings, Inslee said, where cases continue to rise as a result of people meeting with friends and family without wearing masks.
Universal mask compliance would save more than 1,000 lives in Washington alone by February, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The governor added that Washington is having some success against the virus compared to states like Idaho or Montana, where hospitalizations are surging.
If that becomes the case for this state, or just Snohomish County, “anything is possible” in regard to new restrictions, said Dr. Chris Spitters, the county’s top health officer.
Countywide, there were 122 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents during a two-week period that ended Saturday, according to the Snohomish Health District. A 14-day count hasn’t been that high since spring, when the first wave of infections peaked.
The majority of people who recently contracted the virus were exposed to it by a roommate, family member, friend, co-worker or other close contact.
Additionally, cases are rising among all age groups, unlike the previous wave of virus activity, which mainly affected younger people.
Last week, cases tripled among county residents 80 and older. They are the most likely to experience complications or die from the virus.
For long-term care homes, the majority of new infections are popping up at one facility.
Regency Care Center at Monroe is dealing with an outbreak of about 50 cases, Spitters said. When an outbreak occurs, the health district investigates and advises staff on how to proceed.
“They appear to be doing everything by the book, and yet, still, the virus is making its way around the facility,” Spitters said. “They’re working with us well and it’s just a single outbreak. We don’t have a smoking gun for what set the fire, but that’s where things are at.”
All of this has local leaders worried that hospitals could soon fill up with COVID patients, making it harder to treat those with the virus or other serious health care needs.
So far, hospitalizations due to COVID have slowly ticked upward. Weeks ago, about 15 people were admitted to county hospitals because of the virus. Now the number is 29, Spitters said.
Clusters of cases have also been reported at four or five schools in the county, Spitters said. He declined to say which schools.
For months, health experts have told school districts they need to be prepared when cases inevitably show up in classrooms so they can prevent a large outbreak that would require shutting down an entire campus.
“The schools are all working well with us,” Spitters said. “We’re confident in how things are going at this point.”
The health district hasn’t asked any school to close because of the new cases, he said.
The rising case counts caused one of the county’s largest school districts to delay a phased reopening.
The Everett School District announced Tuesday it will wait until January to bring elementary students back to campuses.
“This was not an easy decision, but the district does not want to transition to hybrid learning, only to have to close buildings again due to infections,” the district said in a news release. “They also want to provide consistent, stable information for families, so they do not worry about information and conditions changing weekly.”
The district still plans to resume some in-person instruction for students in developmental or other special-needs programs.
Also on Tuesday, Inslee announced the state is joining others in the West, including Oregon and California, to create a panel of health experts and scientists with expertise in immunization to evaluate the safety of FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines.
The purpose is to give “greater faith and greater confidence” in the vaccines, Inslee said.
“We’re seeing some relatively promising results from some of these trials,” he said. “When they’ve stopped a couple of these trials because of possibly adverse effects, that’s actually a good thing because it shows the process isn’t just going to be a rubber stamp.”
When a vaccine is approved, it’ll take months to become widely available. So prepare for the pandemic and social distancing to last beyond spring or summer.
Until then, wearing a mask is the best thing you can do, Inslee said.
“Even at the White House, they’re starting to wear masks,” he said. “It only took them eight months to figure out that, ‘Hey, this is a serious disease.’”