With COVID-19 cases increasing over the past few weeks, Snohomish County officials are not only hesitant to continue reopening, they’re worried about having to take a step back in the process.

The deciding factor would be if cases in the county start rapidly climbing, as has happened in other parts of the United States, and hospitals begin to fill up with COVID-19 patients, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said during a Tuesday news briefing. If that happens, the county might move back to Phase 1 of the state’s four-phase Safe Start reopening plan rather than proceeding to Phase 3, Somers said.

“A week or so ago, I would have thought it was a remote possibility,” Somers said. “I don’t feel that way anymore. I think going back to Phase 1 is clearly one of the options that could be in front of us.”

For four of the past 10 days, the county has recorded more infections per day than it had in six weeks.

In the week of June 23-29, the county recorded 180 cases. It had another 168 in the previous week and 110 the week before that.

The “honeymoon” period of late May and early June has passed, said Dr. Chris Spitters, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

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“These are, in the current period, unprecedented figures that clearly do signal obviously increased case rates and increased transmission,” Spitters said at the Tuesday briefing.

The number of people being diagnosed with COVID-19 each day in King and Pierce counties is also rising more quickly, according to the state’s most recent situation report.

Parsing the trend is more difficult in King County because of an increase of testing. That isn’t the case in Snohomish and Pierce counties, where testing volumes haven’t changed much. This suggests the uptick is connected to increasing transmission across the Puget Sound area.

Between June 2 and 16, Snohomish County had 23.6 infections per 100,000 residents. But for the two-week span ending June 27, it had 39 infections per 100,000.

That puts Snohomish County far above the threshold to continue reopening.

When Secretary of Health John Wiesman decides whether a county can move to the next phase, he generally wants the county to have had 25 or fewer new infections per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks. (The magic number was originally 10 cases per 100,000, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but was later relaxed to 25.)

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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Another cause for alarm: While some of these new infections are among people who have been in close contact with a COVID-19 patient, many of the newly diagnosed don’t know anyone with the disease and don’t work in jobs that put them at a higher risk of contracting the virus, Spitters said.

“Of course, that is the most concerning, because that signals there are cases out there that we are unaware of,” he said.

The Snohomish Health District says the county’s health care system is still in good shape, which is another important factor for moving into a new phase.

For the last period of available data, June 2-20, about 4% of the county’s hospital beds were being used by suspected COVID-19 patients, and 64% of beds were occupied overall. The state Department of Health’s target for counties to move to the next reopening phase is for less than 10% of beds to be filled by COVID-19 patients and less than 80% of beds to be occupied overall.

Spitters said he agreed with Somers that, if the numbers don’t bend in the right direction, Snohomish County could be moving backward instead of forward in the reopening process.

“We need everyone to try and help us flatten that curve,” Spitters said. “If we can’t do it and it starts running away like it did in March, we would have no choice.”

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