King County has moved from a “low” community COVID-19 level to “medium,” per federal guidance, as infection rates increase, the county’s top health officer said Monday.
Despite the movement upward within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention community levels, there are no plans to reintroduce past mitigation requirements, such as an indoor masking mandate or vaccine checks.
Case rates have slowly been ticking up in the county since the end of March, after statewide mask mandates came to an end and as omicron’s infectious subvariant, BA. 2, took hold. As of Monday, King County saw a 19% increase in cases compared to the prior week and was averaging a seven-day rate of about 214 new infections per 100,000 people, county health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said during a news conference.
“This was not unanticipated as the more contagious BA. 2 variant spread both locally and nationally,” Duchin said. “… The CDC medium risk category is not a magic threshold meaning the COVID-19 pandemic locally is suddenly or fundamentally different, or that we’re approaching a crisis level. But it does tell us that COVID-19 infection risk is increasing for individuals and the community.”
The CDC measures community levels of COVID by tracking seven-day case rates, seven-day hospitalization rates and the percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID patients. The agency classifies counties as having low, medium or high community level of COVID.
Duchin acknowledged some potential discrepancies or delays between CDC and Public Health – Seattle & King County data because the federal agency reports new cases by the date the lab report was submitted, while the local health department tracks data by specimen collection date.
For example, King County is still listed as having a “low” community level on the CDC’s website, which is updated on Thursdays.
While infection rates are rising, they’re still much lower than they were during the region’s spike in omicron cases, Duchin said. During the winter, the county reported a seven-day infection rate of more than 2,100 new cases per 100,000 people.
“We should see this yellow traffic light as a ‘slow down’ and use this opportunity to lower our risk and the risk for those around us, and to think more about how we’ll manage the ongoing challenge of COVID-19 sustainably over the long term,” he said.
Hospitalizations and deaths remain at “stable, low levels,” Duchin said. Recently, the county reported an average of about two new COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 — compared with 19 per 100,000 in February.
In addition, COVID patients are taking up about 4% of staffed inpatient beds in King County — though Duchin noted hospitals are still “very full” with non-COVID needs, including managing a large number of delayed procedures and ongoing issues discharging patients from hospitals.
Statewide, infection rates have seen a slight uptick, though the increase hasn’t yet translated to an increase in severe illness or deaths.
The CDC also maps COVID transmission levels, which the CDC says it provides for health care facilities. The transmission map also assigns different counties with levels of risk (low, moderate, substantial and high), though its threshold for each level is lower than the community-level map’s criteria.
A county considered to be at high transmission risk, for example, would have more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days — while a county at high community-level risk would have more than 200 new cases per 100,000 (and would also take new hospitalizations into consideration).
Under the transmission map criteria, King County is considered to be at high risk.
Each map provides a slightly different perspective, Duchin said.
“If you’re a person who really just wants to know how much COVID is out there, how much spread is happening, I think the COVID transmission-level (map) … gives you a little more information about how many COVID cases are out there,” he said. “If you’re more interested in the issue of, ‘What’s the overall impact determined by hospitalizations?’ then the COVID community-level (map) is probably more informative.”
Vaccinations and boosters remain important for reducing risk of severe illness, Duchin said, in addition to other mitigation measures, like wearing a high-quality mask and improving indoor air ventilation.
“The threat of COVID-19 has decreased substantially, but it has not disappeared,” Duchin said. “… I would expect ongoing ups and downs in the coming months and years based on what variants emerge, population immunity and other factors, so for this reason, let’s think about long-term sustainable COVID-19 prevention and treatment strategies as our top priority.”