This May 4 photo shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer’s COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. On Monday, Pfizer said an early peek at its vaccine data suggests the shots may be 90% effective at preventing COVID-19. (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)

This May 4 photo shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer’s COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. On Monday, Pfizer said an early peek at its vaccine data suggests the shots may be 90% effective at preventing COVID-19. (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)

‘The largest wave yet’: COVID metrics shatter previous highs

State and Snohomish County officials warn that continued spread will require renewed restrictions.

EVERETT — State and local health experts on Tuesday expressed, in dire terms, the need for people to act immediately to stop the spread of COVID-19.

New cases of the coronavirus are greatly surpassing previous record highs in Snohomish County and statewide, while hospitalizations are also increasing. Officials warned that if the situation doesn’t improve, they’ll re-impose some restrictions on businesses and social gatherings so the health care system is not overwhelmed with sick people.

“If we had a dashboard, every light would be blinking red and every warning buzzer would be going off,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said at a news briefing. “The third wave of the virus appears to be the largest wave yet. The fact that we’re entering winter months with the highest case counts yet should send shivers down everybody’s spine.”

Gatherings, especially those indoors, where people don’t wear masks are a significant driver of the current wave of infections, experts say. So wear a mask, wash your hands and only socialize with five people outside your household each week.

“We know what stops COVID-19 cases, we just need to actually do it,” John Lynch, an infectious disease doctor with Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said during a separate briefing with state and local health experts.

With the holiday season approaching, they said, it’s too dangerous to celebrate with people outside your immediate household.

“It’s important to know we can get COVID from people we know, love and trust,” state health official Lacey Fehrenbach said.

Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish County’s top health officer, said renewed restrictions would be “inevitable” if people don’t take immediate action.

“Not after the holidays, not next week, not tomorrow — now,” he said.

State health officials and Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff acknowledged that pandemic fatigue has set in. But they, too, warned that unless people push through their exhaustion and change their behavior, further action will be needed — maybe even a statewide stay-home order like the one imposed last spring.

“Everything is on the table,” said state health officer Kathy Lofy. “Unfortunately, if we continue on this trajectory, at some point we may need to” resume restrictions.

Inslee is on vacation but is expected to hold a news conference as early as Thursday to discuss the situation.

David Postman, his chief of staff, said nothing prevents the governor from taking action immediately, but he wants to give people a chance to “re-calibrate” their behavior to flatten the curve.

“This is the plan. We need people to take it seriously,” Postman said.

If Tuesday’s appeal by health officials doesn’t bear fruit, “we’ll have another press conference to talk about restrictions,” Postman said.

King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin warned that if the pandemic gets worse, officials will have to act quickly.

“COVID-19 is a viral wildfire and we are the fuel,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to wait and see what works.”

Last week, Snohomish County recorded more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases, according to the Snohomish Health District. There were four days that each surpassed the highest single-day total of 140. The new record is 250.

The latest two-week case count, which ended Saturday, saw nearly 190 infections per 100,000 people in Snohomish County. Six weeks ago, it was 46.

The previous record high, reached in March, was 129.

At the same time, the number of people hospitalized due to the virus, a figure which hovered in the mid-20s last week, jumped to 44 as of Tuesday morning. If the situation worsens, as expected, it will test the capacity of area hospitals, Spitters said.

“That’s occurring all across the state,” he said. “We have nowhere else to send our patients if we run out of space here. This is definitely a warning signal. What we see in the hospitals today is transmission that happened three weeks ago.”

A potential lack of beds and protective equipment aren’t the only concerns.

A nursing shortage could mean beds go unused because there’s no staff to care for patients.

Deaths from COVID are also on the rise.

Of the 35 deaths reported in October, 20% of those were people under 50, Spitters said.

“These are some grim numbers we are looking at,” he said. “I think we have to accept that we may be in for a very long winter.”

Across the county, indoor social gatherings where people don’t wear masks are a major factor in spreading the virus, Spitters said.

“When is it a good idea to have more than five? Never,” Spitters said.

But virus transmission “is coming from all directions,” he added.

“When you have this much transmission in the community, and an economy that’s trying to open, sick people show up to work,” Spitters said. “They may not feel sick at the time, but somebody tests positive or they get sick and go home and then test positive, and now we have a case at work and they might have infected someone else.”

However, workplace clusters larger than five cases are rare, he said.

The increase in cases is not a result of increased testing.

Although more tests are being performed in Snohomish County, the positivity rate, as well as the number of people experiencing symptoms who get tested, also rose, according to a weekly health district report.

The county’s largest test provider reported a 10% positivity rate last week, with 15% of tests coming back positive last weekend, Spitters said during Tuesday’s call with state leaders.

Six weeks ago, fewer than 3% of countywide tests were positive.

The weekly report also shows 19 outbreaks at businesses in the county, including four restaurants, two retail shops, a government agency, a gym, a bar and a school.

One restaurant was connected to 11 infections.

Spitters declined to identify the businesses.

If there’s a threat of exposing customers, the health district will identify and shut down the business, he said.

“Usually the problem is behind the counter, or back in the kitchen, and the patrons don’t meet the definition of a contact, in terms of time and proximity,” he said.

Cases are popping up at about six long-term care homes, as well. At a Monroe facility there have been 55 cases, and the outbreak is not considered resolved.

The grim news comes the same week the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced it might have developed a vaccine that will be up to 90% effective against the virus.

Somers said the county is prepared to distribute a vaccine, with early doses going to the most vulnerable populations.

However, it will take several months, and possibly a year, before one is available for everyone.

“The fruits of a vaccine’s offerings are not imminent,” Spitters said. “They’re not going to help us with this current wave. They may not even help us if there’s a fourth wave.”

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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