Officials, Experts Sound Alarm as COVID Cases Rise

Officials and health experts are stepping forward to urge increased caution in the coming weeks.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise on both Vashon and throughout King County, local and county officials and health experts are stepping forward to urge increased caution in the coming weeks.

This week’s situation report from Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center (see page 1) makes it clear that the virus has truly arrived on Vashon, with updates on cases that have recently occurred at Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, the Vashon Island School District, and the south end ferry, M/V Chetzemoka.

The report also includes news about precautionary measures taken by the VHS football team and Camp Sealth’s childcare program as a result of the school district case.

Dr. Zach Miller, an infectious disease expert for the Vashon Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) told The Beachcomber that islanders should not let down their guard and, in fact, take increased precautions as Thanksgiving approaches.

“People think we are safer because we live on an island and are somehow isolated from the mainland infection,” Miller said. “But that’s just not true. We all know that hundreds of people are on the ferry every day for work, school, shopping and visiting friends and family.”

Miller said he worried about what islanders will face as the weather gets colder and more people are inside, especially with the holiday seasons coming.

“People should think long and hard about gatherings of any kind,” he said. “Already, we know that most of our Vashon cases are from off-island social events such as family gatherings.”

Miller credited families, businesses and local organizations that have worked with the EOC and MRC for slowing further spread on Vashon.

“They are being proactive and transparent, complying with isolation and quarantine measures that go above and beyond CDC recommendations, setting an example for us all,” he said.

But still, Miller urged increased vigilance.

“The fact is, right now today, our test positivity rate is about as bad as the infection rate in Seattle,” he said. “It won’t take much for us to have a major outbreak and community spread on Vashon. Please mask up. Social distance, wash hands and resist the temptation to gather if you can. Certainly reduce the amount of time you are exposed to other people, even the ones you love.”

VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy also said, in an email sent to parents last week, that the district would not be able to expand in-person learning to large numbers of the district’s youngest students for quite some time, given current infection levels in King County.

And at a press briefing held on Thursday, Nov. 6, King County’s leading health and science advisor gave similar warnings about the steep rise of COVID-19 infections in the county and region, detailing the seriousness of the pandemic’s current trajectory.

Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health-Seattle & King County and also the chief of the Department’s Communicable Disease Epidemiology & Immunization Section, delivered the presser via Zoom, in front of a photo background that showed blue skies over the sparkling water of Puget Sound.

But as Duchin’s talk progressed, the news he delivered was increasingly dark. The risk of acquiring COVD-19 in King County, he said, is now higher than it has ever been, with a four-fold increase in cases since late September.

And while rates of hospitalization and death have thus far not yet increased to an alarming degree, Duchin emphasized that these are lagging indicators, which typically follow rising case counts.

New restrictions on activities for those in King County could return, he said, if residents are not able to curb behaviors which accelerate the spread of COVID-19 and decrease the chances that schools will re-open or the economy will improve.

“Too many cases of COVID-19 are related to community activities and travel, socializing, gathering with friends and family, parties, weddings, other celebrations, visiting bars and restaurants, and even faith-based activities,” he said.

Duchin, too, urged a “smaller, safer and smarter” approach to upcoming Thanksgiving celebrations — or else.

“We still have the option as a community to voluntarily, as a community, change our behaviors, and change the course of the trajectory of this outbreak to avoid stress on our health care system,” he said. “But if we see people continue with their usual Thanksgiving plans, and gather in groups, we will undoubtedly have a very unmanageable situation coming out of that.”

During the press conference, Duchin crunched the numbers to show how COVID-19 cases in King County have shot upwards in the past two months, citing approximately 308 new cases reported each day during the previous week in King County. This figure marks more than 100 cases per day than the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring.

Duchin also cited the county’s 14-day incidence, which on the day of the press conference stood at 155 cases per 100,000 people — an indicator that is expected to increase, further overloading the case and contact investigators hired by the county.

Testing is up throughout the county, Duchin said, with many people taking advantage of new testing sites in South King County, Renton, Tukwila and Auburn, and Federal Way. However, along with testing, the county-wide positivity rate has also increased from approximately 2% in September to about 3.5% as of last Thursday, he said.

The highest positivity rates remain in South and southeast King county, reflecting the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on essential workers and others in Black and other communities of color, particularly in South King County along the I-5 corridor.

Duchin detailed a number of mitigation measures that the county is taking to particularly address the rise of cases in these communities. These programs include food distribution and income payments to those who need to quarantine after infection or exposure, as well as partnerships with organizations working in specific communities.

Duchin explained that as cases have risen nationwide, health care systems in other parts of the country have become stressed, and he is very concerned the same thing could happen in King County.

He also urged residents to visit to find locations for flu shot clinics offered by King County — an increased incidence of flu, he said, could also work to overwhelm the health care system.

The suspected exposures to COVID-19 in our community are manifold, he said, outlining how household contagion and transmissions in the workplace are on the rise, especially among essential workers.

Still, he said, residents can still do much to change the trajectory of the disease in King County.

“We don’t have to follow the pathway to pain that so many other communities are experiencing,” Duchin said. “We need to do better in limiting the number of activities outside the home, the number and duration of contacts with others, and avoiding crowded indoor settings. COVID-19 spreads readily indoors, especially in closed spaces without good ventilation and with longer times spent together and when masks are not worn. Mask use is especially important, and critical indoors, even when six feet of distance can be maintained. And the mask should be well-made and fit well.”

Duchin said that unless the public is able to rise to the occasion of modifying its own behavior, more state-imposed restrictions will have to be enacted in order to forestall the county’s health care system becoming compromised.

“Cases continue to accelerate in the wrong direction, and it’s best to hit the brakes before we crash, and not after,” he said. “Too many of us are doing too much, with too little consideration of the consequences of our actions on others.”

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