Coronavirus cases are sharply declining in Western Washington and hospitalizations are showing signs of slowing as the surge of omicron cases that has stressed hospitals could be subsiding, health officials say.
According to the state Department of Health’s most recent complete data, Washington recorded a seven-day average of about 1,543 infections per 100,000 people in mid-January. A week prior, the state’s average was about 1,720 per 100,000.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are still rising statewide, but there are signs the numbers are beginning to level off, particularly in Western Washington, said state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah.
“We are hopeful there is some good news we’re starting to see when it comes to the trajectory of cases related to omicron not just in the state of Washington, but across the nation,” Shah said. “That is welcome news.”
He noted that numbers in Eastern Washington will likely lag behind those in Western Washington, and remain on the upswing for a while longer before leveling off.
Franklin and Whitman counties in Southeastern Washington currently have the highest infection rates in the state, with more than 5,000 cases per 100,000 people, according to DOH data. Yakima, Walla Walla and Douglas counties have infection rates of over 4,000 per 100,000, while San Juan and Jefferson counties have the lowest rates, with fewer than 1,350 per 100,000 people.
King County’s case rate is about 1,963 per 100,000.
“This is what I affectionately call a light at the end of the tunnel,” state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said Wednesday.
With no evidence of any new variants circulating in the state or an increase in cases, Lindquist said he’s comfortable categorizing the trend as a definite decrease in cases rather than a blip in numbers.
Still, the state is counting 50 to 70 deaths per day, he said, even though the current death rate isn’t as high as it was during past surges involving other variants.
“This is still a very significant pandemic at this point — it’s just got some signs of it going down,” Lindquist said. “… Clinics are starting to decompress a little bit and some hospitals are getting a little more breathing room.”
Those who are unvaccinated are also still much more likely to be hospitalized than those who have received immunizations, he added — for those between 12 and 34, the likelihood is five times higher than for vaccinated people.
The state’s health care system, however, is still holding its breath for the wave of omicron cases expected to hit eastern counties, particularly those near the Idaho border.
Idaho public health officials last week activated crisis standards of care for many southern Idaho hospitals, citing staffing and blood supply shortages, Shah said.
Another concern in Washington, he said, is that local blood supplies are also at “emergency levels.” He urged people to donate blood — particularly those who are O positive — as soon as possible, if they’re able.
“This is a really difficult time for every state, but in particular, our focus as the state of Washington is Washingtonians,” he said. “So we’re doing everything we can to support our health care system within the borders of Washington.”
Test demand high
While infection numbers have declined, demand for coronavirus tests remains high.
The DOH’s website, sayyescovidhometest.org, where Washington residents can order rapid coronavirus tests to be sent to their homes, was out of tests on Wednesday evening, a couple of days after the state restocked and reopened the site. A department spokesperson said officials are hopeful the next round of tests will go out next week.
To date, the state has distributed 2.1 million free, rapid tests through the website and has promised to deliver an additional 1.4 million once kits arrive in Washington.
“We do know that all the tools related to vaccines and wearing a mask and policy tools, as well as the rapid spread of omicron across our state, has given us a tale of two responses,” Shah said. “On the one hand, we’ve had success and we’ve been very pleased with that.”
He continued, “But it’s far too early for us to say … we’re out of the woods.”