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COVID hospitalizations continue to drop, but optimism still measured

SEATTLE — While COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to drop in Washington, state hospital leaders said Monday they’re wary of feeling too optimistic because of so much uncertainty about what the pandemic — and flu season — will bring this winter.

Infection and hospital admission rates “look better,” Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said during a weekly news briefing. While hospitalizations are still on the decline, the numbers remain “really high,” Sauer said.

Deaths continue to rise — an expected trend that often comes two to four weeks after a surge of hospitalizations, she said. She added Monday morning that about 30 Washingtonians are dying of COVID-19 per day.

As of two weeks ago, the state Department of Health’s most recent, complete COVID-19 data, Washington’s average hospitalization rate was about 14.7 admissions per 100,000 people, down from 17.7 admissions per 100,000 people in late August.

Although hospitalizations are dipping, the hospital association also remains concerned about the state’s lack of monoclonal antibodies — a treatment shown to be highly effective in preventing hospitalization among people with mild to moderate COVID-19 if given within seven to 10 days after symptoms appear.

Hospitals and other providers used to order the treatment directly from the manufacturer, whereas now the manufacturer is giving allocations to states through the federal government. The allocations are based on a state’s level of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, meaning many southern states with higher infection and hospitalization rates are being prioritized over Washington.

The Biden administration moved earlier this month to distribute the treatment more fairly across the country after seeing seven states — Alabama, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana, where vaccination rates are low — had been using 70% of the monoclonal antibody supply in recent weeks.

Still, Washington state is “not getting as much as we’d like to get here,” Sauer said.

Fortunately, she said, because the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of monoclonal antibodies through an injection, the state is working with other providers besides hospitals, like clinics and pharmacies, to administer the treatment, which should speed up distribution into communities.

Staffing shortages, especially among nurses, continue to worry hospital leaders, who say workers are still “pretty discouraged” despite some optimistic hospitalization trends.

“They’re going through all the emotions, all the hard work required to take care of COVID patients,” Dr. Radha Agrawal, pulmonologist and critical care medicine specialist at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, said Monday. “... But at the same time, they’re not seeing the positive (long-term) results they’re hoping for. There’s definitely a demoralizing effect.”

Agrawal added that Overlake is seeing “so many younger people” this year, including those who are eligible for vaccination.

Adding to concerns for younger patients, Dr. Chris Ladish — chief clinical officer of pediatric behavioral health for Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma — said during the news conference another recent challenge is an influx of behavioral health patients.

“We’re certainly seeing that on the pediatric side in the majority of our ERs that treat children,” said Ladish, who also oversees pediatric behavioral health for MultiCare Behavioral Health Network.

“In general, we’ve certainly seen an increase in kids struggling with suicide, presenting with anxiety and depression,” she added. “I think we’re going to see increased rates of that with kids going back to school, not necessarily because the incidents are increasing related to school, but because there’s a more rapid route to identification.”

As the winter season approaches, Sauer said she’s not sure what to expect.

“I feel better right this minute that hospitalizations are starting to go down. ... However, in late June, early July, we would not have predicted we were going to be in the worst shape ever as we are now,” she said. “It’s hard to hold really serious optimism because this disease is so tricky and so opportunistic.”

Apple Century bike riders enjoy the cooler fall weather

LEAVENWORTH — The core of Saturday’s Apple Century Bike Ride was unchanged from past years, with cyclists given the option of 25-, 50- or 100-mile routes.

The rest of the event — a fundraiser for Wenatchee Sunrise Rotary — was noticeably different, including the timing. The ride is normally held in June. This year’s ride was even canceled at one point due to the surge of COVID cases.

Earl Crowe, a Rotary member who was helping to staff the Leavenworth checkpoint on Saturday, said the cancellation decision was made because other similar events were canceling.

Photo by Ian Dunn 

Earl Crowe

Wenatchee Sunrise Rotary

As it turned out, a bunch of bike riders still wanted to do the ride.

“There were other events getting rescheduled for September, so our bike ride committee got together and said, let’s give it a shot. We’ll kind of dumb it down so all our food is pre-packaged. Normally we have a feast out here and a feast at the end,” Crowe said. “So we kind of took that part out of it. That’s why we’re able to hold it today.”

The bike ride was held Saturday.

bonnicksen / World photo/Mike Bonnicksen 

Tyler Davis with Trek Bikes replaces a derailleur cable on a bike at the Cascade High School pit stop in Leavenworth during Saturday's ride.

In a normal, non-COVID year, the Apple Century Bike Ride would draw as many as 700 riders from all over, but this year there were 238.

The Apple Century Bike Ride is a fundraiser for the service club’s challenge scholarship program.

“The challenge scholarship program is where we work with students that are at risk of not graduating high school. We mentor them for a two-year program and then when they graduate, the top two will earn scholarships up to $10,000 to $12,000,” Crowe said.

Crowe said they heard from a lot of the riders they liked riding in September versus June.

“Even in the middle morning in June, it’s way too hot. The riders today actually like it was nice and comfortable. Some of the riders going to Lake Wenatchee coming back commented how beautiful the ride is with the fall colors,” Crowe said.

Bruce Sieloff of Wenatchee, who was doing the 50-mile ride, said September is the time to do it.

bonnicksen / World photo/Mike Bonnicksen 

Bikers pull into the Cascade High School pit stop in Leavenworth for a quick break during the 2021 Apple Century Bike Ride on Saturday.

“June would have been death. This is just a perfect time of year to do it. The air is cool in the morning. You get a choice of where to turn around. It’s a beautiful ride,” Sieloff said. “I think there should be a lot more promotion of the ride for this time of year. You could do a lot more bicycle vendors.”

Bruce Sieloff’s daughter, Sarah, also likes having the ride in September.

“You have beautiful blue skies. It’s warm but not too warm. As a cyclist, I think it is great because you tend to not overheat. The scenery is beautiful. We’re doing this as a belated celebration of dad’s birthday,” Sarah Sieloff said. “It’s really lovely especially this section with Peshastin and Dryden and you’re up above Highway 2 which you never get in a car. It’s really phenomenal. Really wonderful to be around the orchards when the fruit is heavy on the trees.”

For Mike Rasmussen of Silverdale, this was his first time at the ride. He prefers September because there are too many triathlons early in the year.

“It’s a wonderful course. The only thing I don’t like is some of the chip seal on the road. It’s put together really nice and well-marked,” Rasmussen said. “I’m doing the 100 mile and feel great. I took about a dozen photos. It was really nice.”

Paul Steffenson of Seattle has done the ride four times, but not in eight years. The good weather brought him out and the fact there are not many rides available due to COVID. He just wanted to get out.

“I’m from Seattle so I prefer cooler weather. June might be better but the weather is perfect today,” Steffenson said.

With all the positive comments about having the ride in September, Crowe the club may decide to hold its Apple Century Bike Ride in September going forward.

“Next year during Apple Blossom, we’re going to do Road Apple Roulette which is a poop scoop fundraiser with a raffle. Trying to do that in April-May then trying to do the bike ride in June. There’s not enough space between,” Crowe said. “With all the comments we’re getting about liking it in September, we may as a club move the ride to September so we don’t have two big events back to back.”

He said even though there aren’t as many riders, there were still over $1,600 in donations from riders toward the scholarship fund, in addition to registration fees and sponsor funds.

Apple harvest off to good start in Central Washington

YAKIMA — Early summer heat and late summer wildfire smoke in the Yakima area haven’t dimmed the optimism toward this year’s apple harvest.

Local growers and officials with the Washington State Tree Fruit Association say the crop of early varieties such as Galas and Honeycrisps is a little lighter than in 2019, but surprisingly good considering the weather and wildfire conditions.

“For us, it’s going good ... we’re actually kind of ahead of the game,” said Rob Valicoff of Valicoff Family Farms in Wapato. “Amazingly, the heat and weather hasn’t affected us too bad.”

Barrett Orchards finished picking Honeycrisps and some early Fujis before taking a midmonth break, owner Mark Barrett said. Cosmic Crisp and other varieties will be picked next.

In early August, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association predicted a 2021 statewide apple crop of just less than 125 million 40-pound boxes. That amount is a 2.3% increase from 2020’s 122 million-box apple harvest but would be short of 2019’s harvest of 134.5 million boxes.

Tim Kovis, the association’s communication director, said early harvest reports seem to support the 2021 forecast.

“We’ve been told by members that the early varieties (Gala, Honeycrisp) are a little lighter than first predicted,” Kovis said.

“Some years, the early varieties are a little light, and the later varieties (such as Red Delicious. Granny Smith and Cosmic Crisp) are a little heavier. So we’ll have to wait and see.”

Valicoff echoed Kovis’ prediction about the later varieties of apples, in part because the triple-digit heat of late June and early July occurred earlier in their growing season.

He reported that the early-harvested Gala and Honeycrisp varieties were “about 10% light” in his Lower Valley orchards, but predicted Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Cosmic Crisp harvests would be about the same as last year, with the Pink Lady harvest “probably a bit more.”

Sean Gilbert, with Gilbert Orchards, estimates that he’s about halfway through the harvest, which he said may be smaller due to temperatures.

“Yields are down on apples, but the quality seems excellent,” Gilbert said. The heat “played a role in yields being down, but the cooler temperatures more recently have helped to moderate things already.”

The tree fruit association’s forecast was issued about the same time as the Schneider Springs Fire began burning on Aug. 3, sparked by a lightning strike about 18 miles northwest of Naches. The fire led to weeks of unhealthy air quality, which has improved recently.

The impact of the smoky air on the apple harvest remains to be seen, Kovis said.

“One anecdotal issue we’ve heard about is growers who have been using shade cloth due to the heat might have to remove it due to the smoke,” Kovis added. “With the amount of smoke we’ve seen in the past month and the shade cloth, it’s almost two levels of shade.”

Whatever its effect on the apples, the wildfire smoke and poor air quality it produced definitely impacted his 15 workers, Barrett said.

“The smoke has been pretty tough on our employees, as far as being outside,” he said. “The (Schneider Springs) fire started right at the start of peach season, and we had to work through that.”

Poor air quality forced Barrett Orchards, located just northwest of Yakima, to reduce the number of hours employees could work.

“And we made sure everybody had masks,” Barrett said. “They don’t like working with masks — that’s always been a tough thing to get across to everybody, that it’s good for your health.”

Valicoff did not require his 180 employees to wear masks, but some brought their own, and Valicoff Family Farms had N95 masks available for workers who wished to wear them.

“We didn’t mandate them ... we had a few days with heavy smoke, but it wasn’t as bad down here as it was elsewhere,” Valicoff said.

This year’s harvest is expected to be led by Galas for the third year in a row, the tree fruit association predicts. Galas should represent 21% of the harvest, followed by Red Delicious (16%), Honeycrisp and Granny Smiths (14%), and Fujis (13%).

Cosmic Crisp, a newer variety, is expected to represent 3% of the crop, which would be a 114% increase from 2020, the association reported.

As COVID-19 mandate looms, 68% of state workers verified as vaccinated

OLYMPIA — More than two-thirds of Washington workers subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate have gotten their shots, according to state data.

Meanwhile, state agencies have granted nearly 800 accommodations to state workers whose religious or medical exemptions from the mandate were approved. The accommodations allow workers to avoid getting fired for not being vaccinated, and allow them to work in a role that does not put others at potential risk.

The figures released Monday by the Office of Financial Management come a week before a crucial deadline for Inslee’s mandate that state workers get their shots or lose their jobs.

By Oct. 4, most workers must show that they have gotten all their shots in order to be considered fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

The vaccination numbers are about 20% higher than earlier this month, which Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee called encouraging.

“As you saw from the data, there has been a strong uptick in the number of vaccinated employees in the last two weeks,” Lee wrote in an email. “We find that encouraging.

“Agencies and their HR departments have been working hard to communicate with their employees,” Lee added. “We believe that the numbers will continue to go up, and know that as the deadline approaches more and more employees will make the decision to protect their health and the health of those around them.”

Inslee in a news conference last week said he was holding firm to the Oct. 18 deadline and, “This vaccine is readily available and people ... still have a chance to get it, and we heartily encourage it.”

The vaccination push has come as the state endures a fifth wave of COVID-19 that has stressed hospitals and delayed unrelated medical procedures. While confirmed cases and hospitalizations have recently begun to drop, hospitals remain stressed and about 30 Washingtonians are dying from the virus daily.

As of Sept. 20, a little over 68% of the nearly 63,000 workers subject to the mandate have been verified as vaccinated, according to the OFM data. That’s up from the 49% who had verified as of Sept. 6.

The vaccination numbers range from nearly 85% at the Department of Health, to 64% at the Washington State Patrol and 52% at the Department of Agriculture.

The numbers fluctuate even within large state agencies. For example, 49% of workers at the Department of Correction’s Monroe Correctional Complex are vaccinated. At the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, however, that figure is 39%.

State workers have protested Inslee’s mandates, with several thousand seeking religious or medical exemptions to avoid the shots.

But an exemption alone is not enough to save a worker’s job. Those whose exemptions are approved must still be granted an accommodation that allows them to keep working in a role acceptable to both the agency and the worker.

Monday’s data shows that at least some look set to keep their jobs — though that too so far varies widely by state agency.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families — which oversees the state’s foster care system — has granted 87 accommodations for people who sought religious exemptions.

The Employment Security Department has approved accommodations for 128 who applied for religious and medical exemptions.

Likewise, the Department of Labor & Industries has granted accommodations for 163 workers.

The Washington State Patrol, meanwhile, has granted just five accommodations to keep unvaccinated workers on the job. The agency — which saw a trooper die over the weekend from the virus — has said few accommodations are available since many of their staff work out in the community.

A hearing was held Monday in a lawsuit by hundreds of workers opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, with a judge in Walla Walla granting the Inslee administration’s request to move the case to Thurston County.

Nathan Arnold, an attorney for the objecting employees, had opposed the move, arguing that Inslee’s mandate impacts are impacting workers in Walla Walla, including Department of Corrections guards at the Washington State Penitentiary. “Your honor, it is not where the bow is drawn, but where the arrow strikes,” he said.

But Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge M. Scott Wolfram sided with Inslee attorney Zach Pekelis Jones, who cited precedent that lawsuits challenging such proclamations by the governor belong in Thurston County, the seat of state government in Olympia.

About 600 state and local government employees have joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs, up from roughly 90 when it was filed earlier this month. They include more than 100 Washington State Patrol troopers and more than 70 Department of Corrections employees, according to the amended complaint.

Several legal challenges to Inslee’s COVID-19 mandates have been brought by conservative and business groups, but none has proven successful so far.