OLYMPIA, WA — Coronavirus activity continues to intensify in western and eastern Washington, according to the latest situation report released by the state Wednesday. The report focuses on patterns recorded between mid-September and mid-October and found an overall rise in transmission rates, case counts and hospitalizations.
"Any spike in COVID-19 cases will jeopardize our progress toward reopening schools, strain our healthcare system and increase risks during holiday gatherings," said Lacy Fehrenbach, Washington's Deputy Secretary of Health for COVID-19 Response. "High rates in the community increase that change that someone at your gathering — even people you know well and trust — could have COVID-19. If we act now, we can get these increases in control in time for the holidays."
State officials reiterated that it's not too late to reverse course if everyone dedicates themselves to following the best public health practices.
"Each of us can take meaningful steps to protect our friends, families and communities," Fehrenbach said. "This is a critical moment to recommit to the actions we know prevent the spread of COVID-19."
Here are some key highlights identified in the state's latest report:
Transmission is increasing in western and eastern Washington. The best estimates of the reproductive number (how many new people each COVID-19 patient will infect) were 1.34 in western Washington and 1.12 in eastern Washington as of October 10. The goal is a number well below one, which would mean COVID-19 transmission is declining.
From mid-September to mid-October, case counts and hospitalizations have risen in both western and eastern Washington. Some of the increase in early October appears to be due to more testing. However, case counts increased during the week ending October 15 despite decreases in testing.
Increases in western Washington are widely distributed geographically and across ages. Growth is particularly high in the 25 to 39 and 40 to 59 age groups and in the Puget Sound region (Snohomish, King and Pierce counties). This wide distribution suggests increases are due to broad community spread, not driven by a single type of activity or setting.
Though cases have been rising at a slower rate in eastern Washington, other trends indicate a risk for faster growth in the future. The proportion of positive tests to total tests is considerably higher in eastern Washington than western Washington. Additionally, the case rate per person in eastern Washington remains twice as high as in western Washington.
Recent growth in cases is widely distributed across the state. Several larger counties (Clark, Pierce, Snohomish and Thurston) are seeing steady increases. After steady increases through October 7, case counts in King County began to decline—possibly due to decreased testing in that time period. Several smaller counties (Grant, Kittitas, Skagit and Walla Walla) are clearly experiencing increases, though the total number of recent cases remains low.
Trends are also mixed in counties with flat or decreasing case counts. After gradual but steady increases through October 5, case counts in Benton and Franklin counties have plateaued. In Spokane County, case counts are now flat following a steep increase in early to mid-September. Case counts are fluctuating in Whitman County, with some likely increases in older people following a recent spike in the college-age population. Cases remain flat in Yakima County.
Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer, shared a few graphs during the Wednesday news conference, showing the coronavirus's estimated reproductive rate above one on both sides of the Cascades, indicating continued growth.
The data, Lofy said, show increases widely distributed among many counties and highlights especially concerning trends in Snohomish, Pierce, Thurston and Clark counties.
The latest increases are happening across age groups and highest among those ages 25-39 and 40-59, which points to widespread activity among the population, Lofy said.
Officials attribute part of the recent rise to small gatherings among family and friends where participants fail to take proper precautions.
"Recently, friends and family gathering to watch their favorite football team led to an outbreak of at least six cases of COVID-19," Fehrenbach said. "If you're planning a get-together, please, please wear a mask around people you don't live with, even if it's friends and family. Remember, many people get COVID-19 from someone who doesn't have symptoms yet, and higher rates of COVID-19 in the community increase the chance that someone at a gathering could have COVID-19."
While the safest course of action continues to be avoiding all gatherings with those outside the household, those who choose to socialize can do a few things to decrease the risk of transmission.
"If you're going to get together, whether that's for Halloween this weekend or to watch your favorite football team, please keep your gatherings small and be outdoors whenever possible," Fehrenbach said. "This may mean bundling up outside when you get together to catch up with your friends and loved ones. Avoid indoor gatherings if you can, but if you must gather indoors: wear a mask and open the windows and doors to improve the ventilation and reduce your risk."
State health officials have compiled a list of recommendations for a safer Halloween, including several options for low-risk fun and ways to reduce the chance for infection for families who venture out to trick-or-treat.
General recommendations include:
Wear a cloth face covering. Make sure the face covering fits snugly over your nose and mouth.
Avoid confined spaces. Outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities. If participating in an outdoor event is not possible, and you choose to attend an indoor event, avoid crowded, poorly ventilated, and fully enclosed indoor spaces.
Increase ventilation by opening windows and doors to the extent that is safe and feasible based on the weather.
Avoid close contact with people outside of your household. Stay at least 6 feet away from all other people who are not part of your own household.
Wash or sanitize your hands often. Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Stay home if you are sick or were recently exposed to someone with COVID-19. If you are sick, have symptoms of COVID-19, or have been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, stay home and away from others.