Omicron Spread Hits 'Mind-Boggling' Pace In King County

·7 min read

SEATTLE — King County continues to break unwanted pandemic records, with daily case counts fueled by the highly-infectious omicron variant now numbering in the thousands and hospitalizations reaching new highs.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, the health officer for King County, hosted his first COVID-19 briefing of the new year on Friday afternoon, outlining the latest trends and other areas of concern, including a health care system that is stretched increasingly thin.

"The speed of spread of omicron has been mind-boggling," he said. "Our University of Washington colleagues estimate omicron is currently responsible for 90 percent of local COVID-19, just a month after it was first detected."

Over the last week, Duchin said King County reached another record-breaking average of 3,323 cases reported each day, a figure quadruple the November 2020 peak and 12 times higher than the level of infections seen in early December. The influx in new cases can be seen across age groups, but recently has been highest among younger adults.

Recent estimates have placed the omicron peak arriving as early as this month, but the lingering effects of so many infections are likely to have lingering repercussions.

"[S]ome have predicted omicron will peak locally in mid-January, although we can't know with certainty whether the current surge will peak at that time or how long the peak will last," Duchin said. "It will likely continue to impact us for many weeks after the peak."

Hospitalizations have risen rapidly, too, with current COVID-19 patient loads exceeding previous record highs.

"In contrast to the tenfold rise in cases, hospitalizations have increased approximately fivefold from mid-December, when we were averaging about seven per day, to an average of about 34 per day [for] the week ending Jan. 3," Duchin said. "That's one person hospitalized every 45 minutes in King County hospitals currently."

Like with previous strains, the health officer said the risk for hospitalization and other serious outcomes continues to be considerably higher for those who are not fully vaccinated.

"People who are unvaccinated continue to be at the highest risk for COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death, although we are seeing an increasing number of less severe infections among vaccinated people," Duchin said. "In the 30 days through (Dec. 22, 2021), people who were not fully vaccinated were 2.5 times more likely to develop COVID-19, 13 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 27 times more likely to die from COVID-19."

COVID hospitalizations reach new high in King County

As of Friday, Duchin said at least 400 COVID-19 patients were receiving care in King County hospitals, exceeding the previous high of 331, set early last August. The health officer estimates one in seven acute care and ICU beds are currently occupied by people with COVID-19, and the high volume of patients adds to a multi-faceted strain felt at health care facilities across the state.

"The increase in hospitalizations coming on top of the delta surge, and an increase in non-COVID hospitalizations, along with worsening staff shortages and challenges discharging patients is stressing our hospitals now more than ever," Duchin said.

While omicron can lead to a less severe illness for many who become infected, Duchin said the sheer volume of new cases and very high level of community transmission presents a significant concern for others and poses a serious threat to the region's health care system.

"[A]lthough omicron illness is uncomplicated for most people and does not appear to be as severe as delta for individual patients, especially those that are vaccinated and boosted, it's not a mild illness for many and the potential for long COVID remains," Duchin said. "Its impact on our community, and our health care system's ability to provide us with the care we need for all sorts of health problems, is equally if not more severe than past variants."

On Thursday, the Washington State Medical Association sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee and state Secretary of Health, asking for a formal crisis declaration and additional resources to assist overrun emergency departments and hospitals pushed beyond capacity across the state.

Specific requests listed the letter include:

  • Mobilizing the national guard to help with staffing shortages in both long-term care facilities and hospitals.

  • Increasing the budget for the Department of Social and Health Services to immediately hire more staff.

  • Continuing and bolstering incentives to long-term care providers for serving patients as they are discharged from hospitals.

  • Addressing barriers to guardianship for patients who are ready to be discharged, and allow family members to agree to transfers.

Though King County's vaccination rates rank among the highest in the nation, with 86 percent of residents 12 and older having completed the series and 93 percent with at least one dose, percentages for boosters vary widely by age. Duchin said rates for boosters or third doses were highest among people 65 and older, at 75 percent, and lowest among people 18 to 34.

Vaccination rates are improving among the youngest eligible groups, with 50 percent of residents ages 5 to 11 having started a series and 37 percent fully vaccinated, Duchin said.

Learn more about getting vaccinated or boosted on the King County website.

The county is working to increase capacity, expand hours and add locations across the region, including new vaccination sites planned to open this month in Renton and downtown Seattle, along with ongoing pop-up clinics and school-based options.

Duchin notes that omicron's aptitude for infection means counting on vaccines and boosters as the sole defense will not be sufficient.

"Our vaccines, especially with the booster dose, are holding up very well and providing most people with excellent protection from what matters most: serious infections," Duchin said. "But with omicron, even vaccinated and boosted people can become infected and spread the infection to others. We cant' rely on vaccination alone when transmission levels are this high. We need to use the same multiple layers of protection we've used in the past."

Those layers include things like limiting indoor activities, especially in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, using high-quality, well-fitting masks or respirators, improving indoor air quality and following proper isolation guidelines if ill, and quarantining if exposed.

Learn more about the CDC's updated isolation and quarantine guidelines from Public Health - Seattle & King County.

For face coverings, Duchin said N95, KN95 and KF94 masks offer the most protection, followed by snug-fitting surgical masks and multi-layered cloth masks.

King County works to expand testing options and deliver thousands of rapid test kits

As for testing, Duchin acknowledged recent challenges amid surging demand, including the recent winter weather that prompted closures and infections increasing among staff, which forced some locations to temporarily close or reduce their hours. Despite those factors, Duchin said sites across King County and Seattle performed more than 117,000 tests between Dec. 22 and Jan. 4. King County has also requested that the federal government stand up more testing locations, like the FEMA-operated site that recently opened in Auburn.

Earlier this week, the county announced it had secured 700,000 rapid antigen test kits, with distribution expected to begin Monday for the first 100,000. Duchin said the kits would head first to long-term care facilities, emergency medical services and health care providers with urgent needs, along with correctional facilities, senior centers and community partners.

Duchin said the state Department of Health will soon begin weekly deliveries for an additional 10,000 rapid tests per week, and the governor announced the state will purchase millions more to distribute through various channels, including a partnership with Amazon that will allow residents to order them via a web portal.

The health officer closed out his Friday remarks with a message of hope, despite the latest series of challenges put forth by omicron.

"We've shown what we can do when we work together, and right now we need to dig deep for a renewed, community-wide COVID-19 prevention effort over the next few weeks," Duchin said. "These coming weeks for many may be the most difficult yet. Please take good care of yourselves and do what you can to help one another. Despite the recent setbacks with omicron, the overall arc of this pandemic will be improving and we will get through this. I expect 2022 ultimately will be a much better year."

This article originally appeared on the Seattle Patch