Washington health officials on Wednesday reported the state has surpassed 5,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus, an announcement that comes a few days after the one-year anniversary of the country’s first COVID-19 death.
The state Department of Health (DOH) counted 24 new coronavirus deaths Wednesday, bringing the total to 5,012, and the percent of deaths among total cases to 1.5%. Health officials also reported 799 new infections, tallying 342,236 total cases in the state.
“Each of these 5,000 lives were more than a number to us,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement Wednesday. “At the same time, it is fitting and proper to be thankful for the efforts of our citizens to fight COVID-19.”
In King County, the state’s most populous, state health officials have confirmed 84,488 coronavirus diagnoses and 1,406 deaths as of Wednesday.
Following the announcement, State Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah asked Washingtonians to take some time Thursday — at noon, or a time of their choosing — to hold a moment of silence for those lost to the pandemic.
“Obviously 5,000 deaths is a pretty grim milestone,” said Judith N. Wasserheit, the chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health and co-director of the school’s Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness. “You can’t look at that number without recognizing the tremendous pain and devastating losses for their loved ones and families and our community at large.
“I think, though, there is good news,” Wasserheit said.
Recently, the state’s death rate of about 65.5 deaths per 100,000 residents as well as infections and hospitalizations have seen an encouraging decline, health experts say. Since hitting the highest daily number of deaths during the pandemic on Dec. 21 and Jan. 4, with 43 each day, the seven-day rolling average has dropped from about 30 deaths per day to about 11 per day, according to DOH data.
In addition, Wasserheit said the state is seeing high levels of mask use and physical distancing in many areas, particularly in parts of King County.
Vaccine distribution in the U.S. is also picking up. President Joe Biden said Tuesday the U.S. is on track to deliver enough virus shots for all adults by the end of May — two months earlier than anticipated.
And over the weekend, the country’s third vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning some 60,900 doses are expected to arrive in Washington this week to bolster the fight against the virus.
The vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson, requires only one dose and will remain stable in a refrigerator for long periods of time, health experts have said. Johnson & Johnson said it would start shipping millions of doses this week, with a goal of distributing 100 million doses by the end of June.
Despite the increased pace of vaccine production, state epidemiologists are asking Washingtonians to stay vigilant and continue following public health guidelines. They say it’s too soon to see the effect the more widespread vaccine rollout has had on daily death counts, a later indicator of the severity of the pandemic.
“Deaths kind of tell the picture of where the transmission and outbreak were about a month and a half ago,” said Katie Hutchinson, a health statistics manager for DOH. “What we’re seeing now is where we were at early January, which is why we can’t really see the impact of the vaccine administration or the phase changes that the governor has been talking about over the last couple of weeks.”
She added that the average time from symptom onset to death for COVID-19 is about 17 days, though it can take longer. About 90% of COVID-19 deaths happen within the first 32 days, she said.
Another concern, Wasserheit said, is health experts have seen evidence the downward trends in cases, hospitalizations and deaths are plateauing.
“People are really tired,” she said. “So although right now people are adhering to public health messaging in many parts of the state, and I think that’s been helpful, there are early signs that’s been decreasing.”
The new variants that have popped up across the country, which scientists have said are likely more transmissible and may cause more severe cases of disease, are also worrisome, she said. And we should expect more coronavirus variants to emerge in the future — “this is what viruses are supposed to do to continue the spread,” Wasserheit said.
“That means it’s really premature to back off these public health strategies,” she said. “We really need to go all out now. Speed up, not slow down, when the finish line is in view.”