WENATCHEE — COVID-19 incidence rates in Chelan and Douglas counties are declining as more people get vaccinated, but local health officials continue to encourage masking despite recent easing of federal masking guidance.
In Chelan County, the incidence rate has plateaued at 96.7 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people from May 10 to May 14, according to data from the Chelan-Douglas Health District. Douglas County’s rate has dropped since May 10 from 107.4 to 105.1 per 100,000 on May 14.
“We’re an island right now,” said Dr. Malcolm Butler, health officer for the Chelan-Douglas Health District. “Even though our numbers are looking reassuring, we’re an island amongst a high-risk sea.”
Butler referred to a New York Times COVID-19 risk level chart that uses county case numbers per capita and test positivity to measure how risky any county in the United States is. Chelan and Douglas have been defined as “high risk,” but every county around the two counties are labeled “very high risk.” Find the New York Times COVID-19 chart and other COVID-19 info here: wwrld.us/NYT.
As of May 18, Central Washington Hospital had eight people hospitalized due to COVID-19 with nobody in the intensive care unit. Throughout North Central Washington — Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties — roughly 6% to 7% of hospital beds are filled with COVID patients.
In the region, there are more cases in smaller hospitals relative to Central Washington Hospital, according to Butler.
“With the most medically vulnerable vaccinated and thus protected, we’re seeing a lot of people who tolerate the disease fairly well,” Butler said at Monday’s board of health meeting. “They’re sick enough to need the hospital. They need hydration, they need oxygen support, but they’re not sick enough to need an intensive care unit or the proning team or any of the other stuff we do in the bigger ICU.”
New masking guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have put local health officials in a bit of an awkward phase as they await more detailed instructions from the state Department of Health and the state Department of Labor and Industries, said Butler.
“Like wildland firefighters, we’re anxious at the health district to really call the pandemic contained,” Butler said. “And because masking is so effective and really, compared with hospitalization, relatively easy. We’d like to encourage people to continue masking until the rest of the state cools down.”
According to the new CDC masking guidelines, fully vaccinated individuals would be able to stop wearing masks in most settings.
People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their second dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine or two weeks after receiving a single-dose vaccine, according to the CDC.
The state Department of Health, however, requires that everyone use a mask in places like schools public transit, hospitals and long-term care facilities regardless of vaccination status.
Butler especially recommends that employees in tourist-based industries and people in confined spaces with people not part of their bubble continue masking.
“The take-home message is we’re waiting for (Department of Health) and (Labor and Industries) to provide us their guidance,” Butler said. Until then, continue masking, he said.
COVID-19 variants continue to be a concern as their presence in the state continue to increase, according to Butler. The B.1.1.7. variant is 50% more transmissible than the original strain and can possibly cause more severe cases of COVID.
But most health officers are currently concerned with the P.1 Brazilian variant that is likely making vaccines less effective, said Butler.
Butler reported to the board of health that two, fully-vaccinated residents of a local long-term care facility had contracted COVID from a visitor. The health district is sending those specimens for more study, he said.
As COVID-variants continue to pop up and other countries without much vaccine access continue to see cases skyrocket, the health district will have to remain vigilant for something like the next two years, according to Luke Davies, health administrator for the Chelan-Douglas Health District.
Contact tracing will continue, and the health district will potentially have to organize booster shots in the future, Davies said.
But for now, the health district director is looking to the approximately 15,000 individuals left to vaccinate in Chelan and Douglas counties.
As of May 15, 61% of people 16 and older in Chelan County have received the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine, the fourth-highest percentage among all counties in the state, according to data from the Department of Health.
In Douglas County, around 53% of people 16 and older have initiated vaccinations, the 11th-best percentage in the state.
The two-county area has been maintaining 1,500 vaccinations a week, and if this rate continues, the area would reach its goal of 70% coverage in six to 10 weeks, Davies said.
And while 70% coverage is not herd immunity, the closer we get to this benchmark, cases will likely decrease, according to Davies.
NORTH CASCADES — A trail camera in the North Cascades snagged a photo of four fisher kits being moved by their mom, April 18.
The photos are the first proof that the house-cat sized member of the weasel family are naturally reproducing in Washington after being killed off by the mid-1900s. They were listed as a state-endangered species in 1998.
“Seeing her and her kits is a wonderful first indication that the North Cascades Ecosystem can support a reproductive population of fishers, and it’s a great sign for fisher recovery in Washington,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Jeff Lewis in a news release. “We have high hopes that we will find additional females in the North Cascades having kits this spring.”
A female fisher, F105 was detected on a trail camera moving four kits on April 18, 2021, at her den in western Chelan County, according to a news release from the National Park Service.
Fishers are ferocious hunters and prey on mountain beavers, squirrels, snowshoe hares and porcupines.
The National Park Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Conservation Northwest, and Calgary Zoo released 89 fishers into the North Cascades National Park Service Complex and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest from 2018 — 2020, as part of a effort to restore the species to Washington. Fisher F105 was released on December 13, 2018, west of Darrington, according to the release.
“Seeing these fishers find their place and thrive brings so much hope to this ecosystem” said NPS Wildlife Biologist Jason Ransom in the release. “It is a product of the kind of collaborative conservation we need to steward a healthy ecosystem, across boundaries.”
Since reintroduction, fishers have been detected within and around the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, throughout the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, in parts of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and on private lands as far east as Winthrop.
“Seeing one fisher kit born in the wild North Cascades is a wonder; photos showing a group of wild kits is phenomenal,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director for Conservation Northwest. “This new family is an auspicious sign that these reintroduced fishers are finding a good home in the North Cascades.”
The state recovery plan and implementation plan for fisher reintroduction in the Cascades can be found at wwrld.us/3eXCG3J.
CASHMERE — Doyle Workman, 85, wandered the garden at his Cashmere home along the Wenatchee River on Tuesday.
The retired orchardist, who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and traveled to Okanogan with two friends when he was 19, says he had no interest in flowers until he bought his house in 1977 and then retired about 10 years ago.
Now, much of his nearly 2 acres is covered with show plants, including the irises shown in the photograph. In the summer, dahlias and gladiolas will bloom. Before the death of his wife Inetta five years ago, he said he would bring her outside their home to gaze at the garden.
Today, he says people stop by to look at his flowers.
“I don’t charge them to get in, but I do to get out,” he joked.
OLYMPIA — A week shy of the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd during a Minneapolis police arrest that prompted protests in Washington and all over the country, Gov. Jay Inslee signed sweeping legislation Tuesday to reform law enforcement policies and oversight.
The 12 bills, which ban certain tactics like chokeholds and limit others like the use of tear gas, will give Washington the most accountable and transparent police system in the United States, Inslee told reform advocates and families who lost members as a result of police actions.
“This is the beginning. This is not the end,” Inslee said during a bill signing ceremony at a Tacoma community center.
Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, the sponsor of the bill that bans chokeholds and neck restraints, called those new restrictions the beginning of a process to “demilitarize police.”
2020 was a difficult year, he said, with the deaths of Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13; and Manny Ellis in Tacoma on March 3. But people in Washington came together to demand change, Johnson said.
“Justice is just us, coming together to transform the system,” he said.
“These changes came about because Washingtonians demanded it,” Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, added.
House Public Safety Committee Chairman Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said work between advocates of reform and the law enforcement community was “a more collaborative approach than you would have imagined.”
But members of law enforcement agencies and organizations that represent them weren’t on hand for the formal bill signing.
Inslee said later he didn’t know whether they hadn’t been invited or weren’t able to attend. But he insisted the bills were common sense improvements that will protect officers as well as the public through independent investigations and statewide standards for tactics.
“I used to work with law enforcement personnel. I know how tough their job is,” said Inslee, who was once a deputy prosecutor. “I don’t sign bills without a recognition that everyone’s life is valuable on our streets.”
Asked whether the new bills will prompt some officers to quit their jobs or move to another state, Inslee replied: “I certainly hope not... These folks want to have good policing, the ones that are in the profession.”
Major changes from the bills Inslee signed include:
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Coronavirus vaccine coverage is substantially higher in urban areas across the country than in rural communities, where hesitancy remains a “major barrier” for public health officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a new study published Tuesday.
The CDC examined county-level vaccination data across all 50 states from December through early April, finding that 38.9% of residents in rural counties had received at least one vaccine dose, compared with 45.7% in urban counties.
Rural residents were also more likely to have traveled outside of their county to get a vaccine dose.
“This was true for counties across the country, across all age groups, and among men and women,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters.
The data also showed that women were taking the vaccine at higher rates than men, both in rural and in urban areas.
The Biden administration has shifted its response to the pandemic in recent days as more Americans have gotten vaccinated. Last week, the CDC issued dramatic new guidance informing fully vaccinated people that they are protected against the coronavirus without having to wear masks, both indoors and out.
— But with vaccine rates consistently lower in rural communities, the administration has begun boosting federal resources to these areas in an effort to increase uptake. A Biden administration official told reporters Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was turning its focus to smaller communities after initially setting up mass vaccination sites in large urban areas.
“Vaccine hesitancy in rural areas is a major barrier that public health practitioners, health care providers, and local partners need to address to achieve vaccination equity,” the CDC report concluded. “Disparities in COVID-19 vaccination between urban and rural communities can hinder progress toward ending the pandemic.”
The divide was stark in several states that had double-digit percentage gaps in the vaccination rates in urban and rural counties.
In Missouri, 31% of adults in rural counties had received at least one dose as of April 10, compared with 41.3% of adults in urban areas. In Texas, 35.6% of rural residents had taken the vaccine compared with 44.1% of urban residents. And 31% of those in rural counties in Florida had taken at least one dose, versus 44.3% of those in Florida’s urban areas.
Dr. Julie Swann, head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University and an adviser to the CDC during its response to the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, said the new data tracks with other surveys on vaccine hesitancy and with longstanding resistance to mask wearing throughout the pandemic.
“This does confirm what we have seen from individual states that have put data out, that in general, the vaccination rate has been higher in urban areas than in rural,” Swann said. “Similarly, when we’ve seen hesitancy around masks, it’s rarely been in urban areas.”