COVID cases climbing statewide; tips on gatherings

Coronavirus activity in Washington state is increasing again.

After a dip in mid-September likely owing to a relative lack of testing due to wildfire smoke keeping folks indoors, COVID-19 transmission rates have increased in October, especially in Western Washington.

As of Sept. 30, the seven-day rolling average for Washington was 496 cases. Kitsap County has seen an uptick as well, with 61 positive cases per 100,000 residents as of Oct. 6. The county had reached a low of 29 per 100,000 just a few weeks prior.

But despite the increase, Washington has avoided the kinds of wild spikes seen in other states, which have the potential to disrupt and overwhelm the local health care system. In noting this, Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s health officer, wanted to make sure that “people understand the changes they have made in their lives are paying off.”

“Almost every state has experienced a fairly large spike in cases,” Lofy said.

Western Washington has had a clear increase in COVID cases, especially in counties in the Puget Sound area, while Eastern Washington, despite an outbreak in Whitman County, home to Washington State University, may be plateauing a bit.

DOH releases literature

The approaching colder weather is likely to keep more folks indoors, where COVID-19 is more likely to spread. Combine that with the isolation felt by many due to the prolonged pandemic and the upcoming holiday season, some will choose to have gatherings indoors, said Lacy Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy secretary of Health.

With that in mind, the DOH has released a “Safer Gatherings” checklist for residents to decrease the risk of coronavirus transmission. There is always a level of risk in gatherings, and it grows as the size and time of the gatherings increase.

Those who decide to gather may want to consider holding it outdoors if possible; doing a health check of all potential guests; asking if they have had any COVID symptoms recently; having a plan for sharing food; ensuring the safety of older, immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable guests; and frequently cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.

The full list can be found at the DOH website.

Vaccine preparedness

While there is no imminent news of a coronavirus vaccine, the state is preparing for that possibility. It is putting together a plan for how a potential vaccine will be distributed.

The DOH plans to post the plan onlinr by next week and will have specific steps, such as developing equitable vaccine allocation, setting up an infrastructure to distribute the vaccine and planning for communicating its availability to the public.

The plan will be a first draft, said Michele Roberts, acting assistant secretary for the DOH, that will be continuously updated.

Responding to recent poll results that showed 54 percent of respondents would not take a vaccine before Nov. 3 Election Day, Roberts said that the decision to get a vaccine is up to each individual, but it was on the state to be transparent with “clear information about how the vaccines work and how safe they are so that people can make a decision.”

“We continue to work diligently on the many necessary components required to distribute a safe and effective vaccine when one is available,” Wiesman said.

Lofy to leave DOH

Lofy, who has served as the state’s health officer for about 6 1/2 years, said last Wednesday that she would be leaving by the end of the year.

Her plans include spending more time with family and reconnecting with other family and friends while improving her health. The recruitment process to find a replacement will begin within the next month.

“It’s really been an honor for me to help lead our state’s COVID-19 response,” Lofy said.

Health Secretary Jonathan Wiesman, who plans to leave his position before July, when he starts his faculty appointment at the University of North Carolina, Gillings School of Global Public Health, praised Lofy.

“Her leadership, guidance and support have been invaluable,” he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee also thanked her for her service.

“We are very fortunate to have had Kathy Lofy looking out for the health of all Washingtonians. Her leadership, her dedication to science and data have been invaluable not only during the COVID pandemic, but throughout her entire time at DOH,” he said.