Washington state has hit yet another coronavirus-related record high: More cases were recorded on Christmas Eve than on any day since the pandemic began.
On Dec. 24, the state recorded 6,140 coronavirus infections, topping the previous peak of 5,526 daily cases recorded last winter, according to new data from the state Department of Health, confirmed Tuesday.
The soaring cases washed over a holiday weekend as the region worked to juggle a mix of high testing demand, continued spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant and freezing temperatures, snow and ice. Washingtonians struggled to secure testing appointments after the treacherous conditions shuttered most clinics and further slowed efforts to contain the virus, nearly two years after it first arrived here.
Local scientists have reminded the public the omicron surge will peak at some point but the timeline remains murky. While some questions remain about the variant’s severity, early evidence indicates it causes milder symptoms and COVID-19 vaccines continue to help prevent serious illness and death.
The recent surge mirrors trends across U.S. cities as omicron has become dominant in the country and pushed daily counts past the peak of the late-summer wave of the delta variant.
DOH also confirmed an additional 3,847 cases and 17 new deaths on Monday, bringing the state’s totals to 834,235 cases and 9,801 deaths, meaning that 1.2% of people diagnosed in Washington have died.
In King County, coronavirus cases continue their upward trend. On Tuesday, the county’s average count of daily cases jumped to 1,987 infections per day, about 400 higher than the average reported on Monday. The new rate reflects a 213% increase in the past seven days, according to the county’s COVID data dashboard.
King County hospitalizations are on the rise, now averaging about 11 per day, or a 47% increase in the last seven days. Deaths are on the decline, though in the past changes in death rates have lagged behind jumps in infections and hospitalizations by several weeks.
Public health officials have also warned case totals may be an undercount because of delays in reporting and since rapid, over-the-counter test results are not included in the data.
It’s unclear how many infections are attributable to omicron, but the variant has continued to spread locally, according to University of Washington clinical virologists who have been sequencing the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic.
The lab’s assistant director, Alex Greninger, said Tuesday more than 90% of the positive coronavirus samples the lab is testing are “consistent with omicron.”
To find signs of the variant, the lab — like many others in the U.S. — has been running all positive samples through a particular PCR test that searches for a mutation called spike gene target failure, or a small deletion in the omicron variant’s spike protein.
While the alpha variant of the coronavirus also carries the mutation, Greninger said last week the deletion has become “almost synonymous with omicron” because of the recent rise in percentage of these cases in the last few weeks.
While more fully vaccinated people are testing positive, King County public health officials say that unvaccinated people still have the highest risk of contracting and transmitting the virus.
In addition, the Puget Sound region is struggling with increasingly high demand for coronavirus tests — sparked by concern about holiday gatherings and omicron spread. The surge in demand was already leading to long lines and wait times at many local testing sites, but the weekend winter weather is further complicating the process.
In King County, nearly all test sites run by Public Health — Seattle & King County closed Tuesday because of weather and road conditions. Those in Angle Lake, Auburn and Renton stayed open, though the Angle Lake and Renton sites operate with reduced hours and the Auburn site was open by appointment only.
Six UW Medicine testing sites throughout the state also closed Tuesday, though the West Seattle, Aurora Avenue North, University District and Sodo sites in Seattle remained open. UW clinics in Yakima, Walla Walla, Sunnyside and Richland were also open Tuesday.
All Snohomish County drive-thru testing sites halted operations Tuesday because of the snow. The Snohomish Health District urged anyone who had scheduled an appointment to be on the lookout for an email with rescheduling information.
In Pierce County, the county’s drive-thru testing station in Lakewood remained open Tuesday and Cheney Stadium in Tacoma continued taking scheduled appointments, but most others shuttered due to weather.
Editor’s note: The Washington Department of Health on Tuesday afternoon revised the number of coronavirus cases reported on Dec. 24 to 6,140.