EVERETT — Snohomish County’s third wave of COVID cases, which started in September, is already worse than the previous spike of virus activity during the summer.
In a two-week tally that ended Saturday, the county saw more than 100 new COVID infections per 100,000 residents. That’s the highest the metric has been since spring, during the first wave. One day last week, the Snohomish Health District reported 114 new COVID cases — the largest single-day tally since March.
The rate of hospitalizations from the virus has only slightly risen, but local leaders and health experts are sounding the alarm that the sharp increase in positive tests, which is also being seen in other parts of Washington and the country, might signal a fall surge that could jam hospitals, jeopardize school re-openings and bring back social and commercial restrictions.
“We could end up back where we were in March, both in hospital capacity and, consequently, in measures that would need to be taken to bring things back under control,” Dr. Chris Spitters, the county health officer, told reporters Tuesday.
In Olympia meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee shared similar concerns. Washington’s overall two-week case rate is also on the rise and recently hit 100 infections per 100,000 residents.
“What we have to understand is COVID-19 can penetrate any social bubble,” Inslee said at a news conference. “People have now spent most of 2020 under these precautions. We certainly understand how long this has been. We’re all tired of this virus, but this virus isn’t tired of us.”
The governor added that he has no plans to reinstate previous COVID restrictions, such as a stay-home order — for now. Instead, he’s asking Washingtonians to wear masks, especially when socializing with friends or family.
In Snohomish County, the “nearly vertical” spike in cases is being driven by indoor get-togethers of all sizes, where people aren’t wearing masks, Spitters said.
“I really think we’ve got to ratchet way back on that, and kind of retreat your social life and personal behavior to what we were doing last spring, voluntarily, so hopefully we don’t have to impose measures that would require that,” Spitters said.
So wear a mask, keep your social circle to five non-household members each week and avoid large gatherings, health experts say. It’s easier to catch the virus indoors, so find ways to increase ventilation or take gatherings outside.
“If you can’t do that, you really ought to think twice about doing it,” Spitters said. “You may get away with it, but as a population, across the whole community, if we have that occurring again and again and again, we’ll see transmission occurring, and that’s what we’re experiencing.”
Across the U.S., dozens of states are dealing with sharp spikes in COVID activity. As of last week, Washington had the 43rd-lowest COVID case rate in the country, according to a White House report obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
“It’s part of a phenomenon called fall,” Inslee said. “People coming inside, letting down our guards and having the infections take off.”
Locally, the rising case count takes Snohomish County out of the “moderate” risk category for school re-openings. State guidelines recommend bringing some elementary students back to campuses with hybrid schedules in districts whose counties are reporting 25 to 75 COVID cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks. The county’s rate of about 100 is well above that recommendation.
Throughout the county, several districts have resumed in-class instruction for some students. In recent weeks, cases have risen slightly for school-aged children, data show.
Last week, as cases increased, Spitters told district leaders to freeze their reopening plans but to continue in-person instruction for students who had already returned.
On Tuesday, he said they can continue with limited in-person learning for students in kindergarten through the third grade, despite the sustained surge in cases.
That could change if districts have trouble containing potential outbreaks, hospitals reach capacity, data start to show school increases in disease activity or the state issues new guidance, the health district said in a news release.
Inslee said decisions on in-person instruction are still up to school districts and local health departments.
At the same time, he issued new COVID protocols for colleges and universities, including rules for masks in campus housing settings.
Many aspects of the guidance are already in place for students housed at Everett Community College and Edmonds College.
“The good news is we’re already doing almost all of these measures,” said EvCC Student Housing Director Mike Bowers in an email. “We already require masks outside of the sleeping spaces, common spaces are limited to no more than five socially distanced and masked people, and we provide quarantine and isolation spaces for students.”
The college has two student residence buildings. Since early September, each of the 80 residents has lived in a single occupancy room with a private bathroom. So far, no student has required isolation due to a positive diagnosis, he said.
Edmonds College’s student housing buildings, Rainier Place and Triton Court, are operating with a safety plan that complies with most of the governor’s new guidance and safety requirements, spokeswoman Marisa Pierce wrote in an email.
“We have not had any outbreak or cases in our student housing at this time. We are tracking all students and employees on campus closely with a daily health screening and COVID-19 weekly safety training,” she wrote.
In Snohomish County, people ages 20 to 39 account for the largest swath of new cases, according to the latest weekly report from the health district. Case rates for people 70 and up have remained flat, the data show.
Geographically, cases are concentrated heavily along the I-5 corridor, but every area of Snohomish County is above the target of 25 new cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks.
The rise in cases is accompanied by a slight increase in hospitalizations. That’s not enough to affect capacity or overwhelm the health care system. But “the trajectory of these curves suggests that if they continue, we would be facing that within a few weeks,” Spitters said.
“We need to do whatever we can to keep ourselves, and our families and neighbors, safe,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers told reporters Tuesday. “I know we’re all sick of being at home, but the real sickness is COVID. It really is a brutal disease.”
Meanwhile, fewer people are complying with the health district’s contact tracers. They’re still reaching about 70% of new cases within 24 hours, but people sometimes refuse to give information about their close contacts or their actions leading up to the positive test result.
One in five people infected with the virus completely ignores calls from tracers.
That includes some faith-based organizations, like churches, Spitters said. In addition to declining calls from tracers, some are holding indoor, in-person services with too many people while not requiring masks. He did not identify any such groups.
“This is all managed confidentially,” Spitters said. “Try and place a little trust in the system that is aimed to protect us all.”
The health officer asked that members of those organizations talk to their leadership about following COVID protocols.
“Think of others,” he said. “We want grandma and grandpa around for next year, even if we can’t share the holidays with them this year.”
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.