OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday kept the brakes on counties reopening and warned that there is a “significant chance” he could shift the state into reverse to halt an alarming increase in the spread of coronavirus.
Inslee extended until July 28 a temporary ban on counties advancing in his four-tiered “Safe Start” plan. But he said he won’t wait that long to reimpose restrictions on businesses and social activity to blunt a rise in COVID cases not seen since the early days of the pandemic.
“We have to face a brutal truth. Unfortunately, this pandemic is still raging in the state of Washington,” Inslee said during a televised news conference. “That’s painful to say, but it is a reality.”
At the moment, he said, the situation is not as bad as other states. California, Arizona and Florida are all retreating from opening as hospitals fill up and the death toll soars.
“We are not seeing the explosive rise like we did in March,” Inslee said. “We are seeing a steady climb. We are heading to big trouble if we do not figure out a way to knock this virus down.”
In Snohomish County, the tally of confirmed cases reached 4,129 on Tuesday including 179 fatalities. Statewide, 42,304 people have now tested positive for the virus since late January and 1,404 have died.
Recently, the state recorded one-day increases of more than 1,000 new cases while the county’s daily tallies are climbing at a clip nearly triple that of early June. In Washington, 5.9% of those tested are showing up positive. It is 6.9% in the county, nearly triple the percentage from six weeks ago when it moved into Phase 2.
The surge in cases coupled with the higher percentage of positive results and a steady uptick of hospitalizations of those with COVID-like illnesses are tell-tale signs of a “looming disaster,” Inslee said.
Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s health officer, said without an abrupt change of course soon, the situation could be dire in late August.
“I am just really worried about the trend we’re seeing,” she said.
That could mean re-enacting restrictions for indoor activities like dining, Inslee said.
“What I am describing is the situation we are in is unsustainable,” he said.
Masks are the tool Inslee is counting on to avert closing of restaurants, hair salons, and nonessential businesses and reinstating other elements of his former stay home order.
The state Department of Health will soon launch a statewide public education campaign focused on the value of masking in halting the spike of COVID-19 cases.
In the latest two-week tally, Snohomish County saw 61.8 new cases per 100,000 residents, said Dr. Chris Spitters, the county’s top health officer, during a Tuesday morning call with reporters. When the county entered Phase 2, that number was in the low 20s.
Since the tally started climbing in June, the number of local hospitalizations and deaths have both remained flat in the county.
But leaders worry there may be a lag period between cases and deaths, and those numbers could rise.
“With an increase in cases, it is appropriate to pause and watch the data,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said in an email. “We need to stay the course until we have a better understanding of what is causing the increased case count and the effect of the improved mask use.”
Increased social circles, and a lack of mask wearing and social distancing have contributed to the spike, health experts have said.
Statewide, new cases are concentrated with young people, who are less likely to experience serious symptoms from the virus.
In counties where hospitalizations are increasing, Lofy said it is likely a result of young people infecting older people, such as their parents or grandparents.
Across the country, elected leaders and health experts have long said quick contact tracing is key in the fight against the coronavirus, as businesses and activities reopened after months-long closures.
Local health officials have struggled to track down the newly infected and notify everyone potentially exposed to the virus in the timely manner sought by the state as a requirement for reopening.
In late June, as infections roared back in Snohomish County, contact tracers were reaching less than a third of people who tested positive for the virus within 24 hours of the results.
The health district then hired 31 people to bolster the tracing capacity, spokeswoman Heather Thomas said. Another 23 will wrap up training in the next two weeks.
With increased staffing, the number of those reached grew to 57%, the district reported last week. The state’s benchmark to enter Phase 2 is 90%.
One issue is people do not always answer the district’s calls, Spitters said. Another is a growing web of cases and contacts that need to be traced.
“The bigger the (gathering), the greater the risk of transmission and the harder it is to track everyone down,” Spitters said.
Statewide, counties are reaching between 30% to 100% of people within 24 hours of a positive test result, state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said during a news conference last week.
In May, Inslee launched an initiative to assemble a brigade of men and women to assist local health districts with contact tracing. Since then, roughly 1,500 people have been trained as contact tracers and the pool continues to grow. Of the total, about half are members of the National Guard and the other half are employees of the Department of Licensing.
As case counts increase, the state is increasing its resources, Wiesman said.
The health district has occasionally asked for the state’s help with tracing, Thomas said, but that work is mostly focused on weekends.