Dr. Chris Spitters (right), health officer for the Snohomish Health District, fields questions during a press conference in Shoreline on Jan. 21. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Dr. Chris Spitters (right), health officer for the Snohomish Health District, fields questions during a press conference in Shoreline on Jan. 21. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Local COVID-19 cases might have peaked, health official says

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Dr. Chris Spitters of the Snohomish Health District.

EVERETT — Snohomish County might be past the worst of the novel coronavirus crisis, a top local public health official said Tuesday.

“It’s true that updated models and our case counts and hospital capacity suggest that things are improving and that social distancing measures are having an impact on the course of the pandemic,” Dr. Chris Spitters, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, said during a media briefing.

The news comes 78 days after the nation’s first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in a Snohomish County man, who contracted the virus in China and recovered. Spitters shared the update with cautious optimism, repeatedly underscoring the importance that residents continue to practice social distancing and take other steps to combat a comeback by the virus.

“I sort of view it like having a 10-point lead in the third quarter. Things are looking good, but we can’t let up. It’s just too soon to do so,” he said.

Overall, Washington continues to flatten the curve but residents cannot become complacent about abiding by the social distancing measures, the governor and top state health officials said Tuesday.

“The steps we are taking in this state are having a positive impact. We should be happy about that,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a news conference Tuesday. “We are not out of the woods yet.”

Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s health officer, said “it’s really difficult to know” if Washington is at or past the peak because there’s not been the sustained decline they want to see in such things as new cases and hospitalizations.

“We’re still getting 400 new cases a day (statewide). We still have deaths every day,” said Secretary of Health John Wiesman. “This is still a very, very serious situation.”

Still, Spitters’ remarks suggest that — at least locally — tides could be changing in the pandemic that has rocked the world.

Snohomish County’s cumulative case count rose on Tuesday to 1,659 confirmed infections and 83 “probable” ones, with 61 deaths so far, according to the Snohomish Health District.

Statewide, the cumulative case count was 8,682, with 394 fatalities, according to the state Department of Health.

The peak in reported cases in Snohomish County appears to have occurred a week or two ago, Spitters said. The peak “onset of illness” apparently came two or three weeks ago, with a “sustained decline since mid- to late-March,” he said.

Health district data shows a peak on March 27, when 137 new cases were reported in the county. That count soared again on March 31, when 136 were logged. Since then, however, the daily number of new cases reported has trended downward, reaching 27 on Monday and 50 on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the number of hospital beds devoted to COVID-19 patients remains steady — in the 90s, Spitters said.

“Our hospital resources are stretched but not fractured at this point,” he said.

Other data suggests that the regional outbreak could be starting to wind down.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the tally of confirmed cases in Snohomish and King counties, together, was 5,145 — significantly lower than the 25,000 total infections that modeling studies had previously projected would occur in the two counties by April 7 without intervention.

“It’s much better than it could have been and much better than we feared, so we’re pleased with that,” said County Executive Dave Somers. “It really is evidence that the social distancing and the stay-at-home efforts that we’ve been going through throughout the county and in the state are bearing fruit.”

Modelers at the University of Washington have also shared more optimistic news, recently releasing lower estimates of how many people are likely to die in the outbreak and suggesting that Washington may have already passed the peak of hospitalizations.

The UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) now says the state can expect about 632 deaths, compared to an estimate 10 days ago of more than 1,400 fatal cases of COVID-19.

Nationwide, the IHME has predicted that the pandemic will peak in mid-April.

“I think we’re just out in front of that a little bit,” Spitters said. “Having the misfortune to be the first affected community, we’re likely to be, if all goes well, one of the first communities to emerge out the other end.”

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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