Dr. Spitters: Sadly, group fun is not on the menu

Health officer says surge in Snohomish County cases is fueled by small gatherings of 10 to 15 people

EVERETT — When the county moved to Phase 2 of the governor’s Safe Start plan, local health officials knew reopening businesses and increased social activity would lead to some, hopefully minor, increase in COVID-19 cases.

A month and a half later, the county is reporting 61.7 cases per 100,000 residents every two weeks, with a test positivity rate of 6.1% — both figures are nearly three times greater than when the county entered Phase 2.

“We expected to see a little more disease activity,” said Dr. Chris Spitters, the county’s top health officer. “In the midst of that, maybe we were naive.”

Expanded social circles and a lack of social distancing are fueling the surge, he said. And it’s not just big Fourth of July functions or house parties.

“It’s these smaller, seemingly benign get-togethers, of maybe 10 or 15 people,” he said. “It’s showing us that we have very little margin for error with this virus. Going from five (people) to 10 isn’t benign, it’s causing problems. One of the things I really want people to understand is, sadly, group fun is not on the menu for the foreseeable future.”

This week, Gov. Jay Inslee warned of a “significant chance” that counties could slide back in their phases, amid the rising numbers. Wearing a mask and limiting social interactions could prevent that, he and other leaders have said.

If everyone wore a mask, the country could have the virus under control in four to eight weeks, Robert Redfield, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Before cases surged back, health experts knew robust testing and contact tracing were key to fighting the virus.

But logjams in testing and wide social circles are making it difficult to contain the spread.

Across the country, rising cases in hot spots like Arizona, Florida and Texas are creating backlogs for some processing labs, which some local clinics rely on.

Results for some tests are taking seven to 10 days. That’s the reality for Community Health Center of Snohomish County clinic patients.

On average, the clinics process a combined 300 tests each week.

Long wait times make it more difficult for people possibly infected to isolate. If they continue to work, go outside and see friends, they could further spread the virus.

Ideally, people get tested a day after experiencing symptoms and get results within two days, Spitters said. If positive, tracers hope to reach the patient and their close contacts, all within 24 hours of the results.

As of this week, tracers are reaching just half of new cases within that time frame.

But public health agencies can’t carry all the burden, he said.

If you get tested, tell your close contacts to isolate until you receive your results. If you test positive, they need to continue to isolate and also seek testing.

In Snohomish County, some medical providers, like Providence Regional Medical Center Everett and the Everett Clinic, do most of their test processing in house.

The Snohomish Health District also uses local labs to process swabs from its McCollum Park and rotating sites, which test about 500-750 people each week.

The Everett Clinic, with multiple sites, accounts for about half the county’s testing, Spitters said.

Results for all three providers are usually ready in one to three days.

Providence clinics use a regional lab, and test turnaround is about 4-5 days, spokesperson Casey Calamusa said in an email.

“We certainly hope to see an increase in testing capacity, as that is a crucial component to flattening the curve,” he said.

Additionally, the Everett Clinic and health district have both re-enacted restrictions on who can get tested, as lab capacity continues to fill up.

Previously, people needing a test to go back to work or travel could get one. To prevent further testing jams, that’s no longer the case.

“As the system capacity is facing challenges due to those labs, and the competition for slots is going up as we have more cases, all testing avenues, regardless of who your lab is, are going to face a logjam with more specimens being submitted,” Spitters said.

To provide relief for some labs, some health experts are advocating for COVID-19 pool testing — combining a large group of samples into one — in areas where the virus is more dormant.

If a pool test comes back negative, none of the patients have the virus. If it’s positive, each person needs to be tested individually.

In areas with low positivity rates, pool testing could open up slots for more testing.

“In principle, it seems like a good idea,” Spitters said.

On Thursday, the governor said he spoke to private labs seeking federal approval for pool testing, and endorsed the tool for use in parts of the state with few cases.

When the pandemic began, testing was plagued by a lack of lab capacity. After that it was a lack of swabs, then the liquid needed to transport the swabs.

Inslee and Spitters both said some providers are worried they could soon lack the transport liquid and other supplies needed for testing, again.

“This is the world we live in,” Spitters said. “Six months ago, no one was doing any testing for COVID. … I try to take the long view. Over the long view, I think we’re doing alright.”

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

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