Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters provides an update on the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday. (Snohomish Health District)

Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters provides an update on the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday. (Snohomish Health District)

Local hospitals continue to fill while COVID cases plateau

Meanwhile, cases are popping up at Snohomish County schools, causing many to quarantine at home.

EVERETT — COVID-19’s fifth wave may have reached a plateau in Snohomish County, but local hospitals are still treating record numbers of patients sick with the virus.

The county’s latest two-week case rate shows 469 new infections per 100,000 people. Last week’s adjusted total was 470 cases per 100,000 — the highest recorded during the pandemic.

“The good news is the rapid increases that brought us to this point seem to have leveled off over the last couple of weeks,” Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said during a Tuesday media briefing. “The bad news is we have leveled off at an extremely high transmission level, as high as we’ve ever seen during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, hospitals across the state, including in Snohomish County, continue to see record numbers of patients sick with the virus.

Health leaders are pleading with the public to help blunt the spread of the virus so the health care system can avoid adopting crisis standards of care, under which staff must ration critical resources like hospital beds and ventilators.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we’re pretty close,” Providence Regional Medical Center Everett CEO Darren Redick said Tuesday. “If the situation gets worse, we could easily find ourselves there.”

The plateau in cases could be a sign that the fifth wave is slowing down, though Redick is worried that Labor Day celebrations could fuel another spike.

“We’re all a little bit nervous,” he said. “It’s just too early to tell.”

Already, staff at the Everett hospital are reviewing surgeries every day, determining if there will be enough beds to treat recovering patients and those sick with COVID.

“We need everyone’s help to get vaccinated, turn down the activity, mask up in public and try to spare acute care capacity for all 800,000 of us and give those health care workers a break,” Spitters said, referring to the approximate population of Snohomish County. “Those folks have been at the edge of a spear for 18 months now.”

As of Tuesday, county hospitals were treating 106 COVID patients. Of those, 19 required ventilators to breathe.

In recent weeks, the number of COVID-19 patients at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett has ranged between 80 and 90, Redick said. Of those, between 20 and 30 are in the intensive care unit.

About 75% of people hospitalized there are unvaccinated, he added. When it comes to patients in the intensive care unit, upwards of 96% haven’t received their shots.

“Clearly, we’re seeing those patients who need that ICU-level of care, life-saving-type care, it’s very, very rare we see a patient who is vaccinated,” Redick said.

To alleviate crowding, administrators at the hospital set up satellite intensive care units, but those filled quickly.

Part of the strain on the health care system statewide is an increasing number of patients needing to be transferred to areas with open beds.

In Snohomish County, Providence Everett admits two to three out-of-area, transfer patients each day, Redick said.

They mostly come from counties in the north Puget Sound region, Redick said. The hospital has also received requests from Alaska, Idaho and Montana, however.

“It just kind of points to the situation we’re all in,” Redick said. “Everybody’s trying to find an open bed at the right moment to care for a patient.”

In one instance, a patient from Alaska was brought to the Everett hospital for critical cardiac care.

“We learned that that patient’s provider had reached out to over 20 hospitals to find one,” Redick said. “It’s a pretty dire situation.”

And in some cases, Providence Everett patients are sent to King County.

The best way to protect yourself from being hospitalized, experts agree, is to get vaccinated.

That goes for people who’ve already had COVID, Spitters said.

“The immunity from disease, what we call naturally acquired immunity, is certainly protective, but the duration and breadth of that protection remains to be determined,” he said. “It’s a clear recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get vaccinated, whether you’ve had COVID or not.”

Across Snohomish County, 56% of the total population is fully vaccinated. And on average, another 5,000 to 6,000 receive their first shot each week.

“We’re hoping for that to pick up speed,” Spitters said.

New school year

COVID cases are impacting area schools, as expected.

As of Monday, 74 school facilities had reported one or more cases, Spitters said. Of those, five sites had between two and five cases. None of them had recorded more than five. And 12 of the total reports were associated with school sports, he added.

Long before the school year started, Spitters and other public health experts said that with high levels of COVID transmission, cases would pop up in schools. Safety protocols like masks and social distancing would prevent them from turning into large outbreaks, they said.

For now, the health district is handling infections in schools on a case-by-case basis, Spitters said, adding there are no current plans for a “system-wide” shutdown, similar to what happened in the spring of 2020.

“I think we’re kind of past that at this point,” Spitters said. “But nevertheless, situations can and probably will arise where we may need to temporarily close a classroom, a group of classrooms or even a school, and have kids work remotely on an interim basis, while we interrupt transmission in the school.”

The Mukilteo, Snohomish, Lake Stevens, Lakewood, Arlington, Everett and Edmonds school districts have all had positive cases among students and staff since the start of the school year. This has resulted in the continuum of responses cited by Spitters.

At least three districts — Snohomish, Everett and Edmonds — are tallying cases by campus in a data dashboard on their respective school websites.

In Lakewood, individual cases have been recorded in elementary and secondary campuses, leading to quarantines of a few students and entire classes. In the latter situation, students shift back to remote learning until the end of the quarantine period, officials said.

In Mukilteo, a single student at Harbour Pointe Middle School tested positive last week and classmates in each of that person’s six periods were treated as a close contact.

As a result, 72 unvaccinated students were told to quarantine at home for 14 days beginning Friday. They may receive school work to do during their quarantine, but they are not receiving remote instruction, said Diane Bradford, communications and public relations director for the district.

Another 70 students who are vaccinated returned to school Monday and can continue to come to campus as long as they are not showing any COVID-related symptoms.

“We definitely want to avoid any disruptions to student learning but must prioritize health and safety for our staff, students and their families,” Bradford said in an email. “We have response plans for this kind of situation so staff can act quickly to investigate and notify close contacts while maintaining the learning environment for others.”

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

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