COVID-19 is spreading more quickly than people can be vaccinated, and cases and hospitalizations are climbing throughout King County, a public health official said Friday, creating concerns over the pace of reopening.
If cases continues to climb over the next week or two, the county may return to the more-limited Phase 2 of the reopening plan, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County. Less than two weeks ago, on March 22, Washington state entered Phase 3, which allows for up to 10 people from different households to gather indoors, and outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people.
“We need to be prepared for further increases in cases in hospitalizations over the coming weeks, as the effect of recent travel, increasing activities and the impact of more infectious variant strains continue to promote the spread of COVID-19,” Duchin said at a briefing.
While the number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 is about a sixth of the peak surge during the fall and winter months, the hospitalization rate has more than doubled since early March to 3.6 per 100,000 per week. Deaths have continued to fall since the autumn and winter: One King County resident died of COVID-19 each day last week on average, compared to an average of nine county residents per day in the winter.
The recent increase in hospitalizations over the past few weeks is attributed in part to coronavirus variants. More than 600 cases of variants have been detected in King County, and the number continues to grow.
Meanwhile, the ways people are being exposed to COVID-19 has changed in recent months. There has been a significant decrease in cases from long-term care facilities. Less than 1% of COVID-19 cases were associated with the facilities in March, compared to up to 9% of cases in January.
There has been an increase in outbreaks and cases associated with child care and K-12 schools. In January, less than 2% of COVID-19 cases were attributed to child care and school settings, but over the past few weeks it has grown to 5% of cases. Eight outbreaks have been linked to youth sport leagues during the same period. Transportation, group meals and socializing before and after sports events have been identified as potential spreading events.
About 30% of those diagnosed with COVID-19 recently in King County said that they had attended social events such as family visits, weddings, group meals and parties — a 10% increase from January. About 11% of people with COVID-19 recently also reported visiting bars and restaurants during the period in which they were exposed, which is up from 5% in January. Ten percent of people said that they went to stores, which is up from 5% in January. The number of cases where people were exposed while traveling rose to 11% over the past few weeks, compared to up to 6% in January.
Duchin said Public Health continues to discourage unnecessary travel amid new guidance released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said fully vaccinated people can travel within the U.S. without getting tested for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Those who aren’t vaccinated should get tested one to three days before traveling, and three to five days after their trips, Duchin said. The CDC said travelers should continue to take precautions and wear masks during travel.
About 30% of those exposed said that they did not have contact with anyone known to have COVID-19. Up to 50% of exposure happens before people have symptoms. “It’s a silent spread,” Duchin said.
More vaccine is becoming available. Last week, King County received its largest allocation yet — 90,000 first doses and 147,000 doses in total.
Nearly 700,000 people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (about 36% of King County residents over 16 years old) — an increase of 100,000 since last week. About one in five King County residents over 16 years old are now fully vaccinated. For those 65 and older, an average of 64% of residents have been fully vaccinated, compared to 52% across the U.S.
Race and ethnicity gaps continue in vaccination coverage, which Public Health is addressing through community events and encouraging health care providers to recruit more patients of color, Duchin said.
Public Health partnered with community-based organizations to focus on vaccinating people of color on the first day of a new vaccination clinic in Auburn this week. On the opening day, 60% of the 400 people vaccinated were Latino. To accommodate those with inflexible work schedules, appointments are now being offered in time blocks instead of specific times at high-traffic clinics. Recent clinics have been held with Somali Health Board, Immaculate Conception Church and Friends of Little Saigon to vaccinate people in locations and with community that they trust.
Public Health also is working to vaccinate those experiencing homelessness at 669 service sites through mobile vaccination teams.
The upcoming week’s vaccine supply should to be able to meet the demand of the currently eligible people, the office said. About 300,000 people are currently eligible in King County who have not received one dose of vaccination.
While vaccine supplies are set to increase this month, it will still be a few months before everyone who is eligible will be vaccinated.