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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has increased the COVID-19 community transmission level rating for both Benton and Franklin counties to “medium,” up from “low.”
The increased rating comes as the prevalence of the coronavirus in the Tri-Cities may be plateauing, but at a level higher than at the start of June.
The CDC rates counties based on the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospital beds used by patients with COVID and hospital admissions for people with the disease.
Benton and Franklin counties are among 16 counties in the state of Washington rated as “medium” by the CDC. Six are worse with ratings of “high.”
This is not the first time this spring that Benton County has climbed into the “medium” rate, before falling back to “low” previously, but Franklin County has been rated as “low” this spring.
The CDC says that people at high risk for severe disease in counties with medium COVID-19 community levels such and Benton and Franklin should at least talk to their doctor about whether they should be wearing a mask, and people in contact with those at high risk for severe disease should wear a mask when indoors with them.
Many public health officials in Washington state continue to recommend wearing masks in crowded spaces.
Tri-Cities COVID deaths
Two more residents of Benton and Franklin counties have died of complications of COVID-19, the Benton Franklin Health District reported Thursday.
The Tri-Cities based district reports COVID-19 deaths once a week, usually on Thursday.
It brings deaths reported to date in June to eight. In May, seven deaths were reported, down from eight in April.
The latest two deaths were Benton County residents in their 70s, one a man and one a woman.
The Benton Franklin Health District continues to stress how important it is that people at risk of severe illness from the coronavirus — including seniors and those with underlying health conditions — not only get vaccinated for COVID-19 but also get booster shots.
Deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic now total 692 for the Tri-Cities area. There have been 476 deaths of Benton County residents and 216 deaths of Franklin County residents.
In the Tri-Cities, local public health officials verify that deaths are due to COVID complications by checking for a positive test result and that a coronavirus infection was named as a primary cause of death on the death certificate.
It can take several weeks for the district to receive and reconcile death information due to the reporting processes of medical facilities and coroner offices and the process of issuing and releasing death certificates.
Statewide, 13,186 residents have died of complications of COVID since the start of the pandemic, including 71 in the past week, according to data from the Washington state Department of Health.
Tri-Cities COVID cases
The latest new case rate for Benton and Franklin counties is 113 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days.
That’s not the highest it has been this month, but is above the new case rate of 90 at the start of June and 41 at the start of May.
New case rates remain far below the previous peaks of the pandemic. However, many new cases may not be included in the case rates now as more people use home COVID-19 tests with positive results not reported to public health officials.
The Benton Franklin Health District is currently dealing with one school related COVID-19 outbreak, as some school activities continue in the summer, said Heather Hill, infectious disease supervisor for the Benton Franklin Health District, speaking recently on the Kadlec on Call podcast.
There also are continuing outbreaks in long term care facilities, which include nursing homes or other group homes for the elderly, she said.
Other metrics for COVID-19 also show a higher prevalence than at the first of the month.
Wastewater, hospitalizations, testing
The genetic material from coronavirus detected in untreated wastewater samples from Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and West Richland municipal plants has remained fairly flat for two weeks.
But cases have been increasing over the past three months, according to data from the Benton Franklin Health District.
The increase in wastewater has typically preceded increases in hospitalizations and that is holding true now.
About 4.5% of hospital beds in Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and Prosser are occupied by people with COVID-19, according to the latest data. That’s the highest percentage in more than two months, with May starting with a rate just about 1% and June starting with a rate of 2%.
The percentage of test results positive for COVID-19 at the two public UW Medicine testing sites in the Tri-Cities is up slightly, Hill said.
The free drive-thru testing site at Columbia Basin College off Argent Road is reporting about 30% of tests as positive, up almost 4 points. The free walk-up site off George Washington Way in Richland is reporting 26% of tests are positive, up close to 1 point, Hill said.
COVID vaccination rates for people ages 5 and older remained unchanged over the past week in the Tri-Cities area.
In Benton County 60.5% of residents 5 and older are vaccinated and in Franklin County 57.4% are vaccinated. Both are far below the state rate of 72.7%.
Children as young as 6 months can now be vaccinated against COVID-19, but data on that age group is not available for Washington counties.