SPOKANE — State health officials announced some good news on Wednesday: Washington is finally starting to see a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases detected in the state.
“You generally have to see a few weeks’ trend in data to make sure you’re confident in what you’re seeing,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy told reporters Wednesday. “And we’re starting to feel more confident that this trend we’re seeing is real.”
Lofy said that visits to the emergency departments in the state with COVID-like symptoms peaked initially at the end of March and then again in mid-July, but those visits also are also trending downward.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s another good sign that it appears that fewer people are sick with these symptoms,” Lofy said.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 statewide have appeared to flatten in recent weeks, which health officials said is promising, although deaths reported per day have not declined and appear to still be on an upward trajectory. Lofy said this is to be expected, because hospitalizations and deaths are among the slowest indicators to be reported.
State health officials said their new goal is to get kids into classrooms to meet in-person this year, but such a goal will require continued adherence to gathering limits, mask mandates and residents limiting their exposures to others.
Although case counts are declining, the incidence rate of disease is still too high to reopen schools safely in person in the majority of counties in Washington, by the Department of Health’s standards.
Several other countries had 25 cases per 100,000 residents or less before opening schools. Washington’s average incidence rate for the past two weeks is 124 cases reported per 100,000 residents. In Spokane County, that rate is 208 cases per 100,000 residents.
“Our (COVID-19) activity is still very high, and there are many counties that are still not within the incidence rate that a lot of other countries were in when they reopened schools,” Lofy said. “So you could be seeing a flattening in data, but if there’s a lot of activity out there, COVID-19 will be frequently introduced into schools.”
State Secretary of Health John Wiesman did not specify a date when counties could begin to apply to enter the next reopening phase and said the focus is on driving COVID activity rates down low enough so that schools can meet in person.
“We will want to see what happens as the weather turns and as more people are spending time inside,” Wiesman said. “Generally, when we were looking at applications for folks to move to another phase, we wanted people below the 25 per 100,000 number and for their numbers to trend down, not up.”
Wiesman also noted that some local health jurisdictions reported that a move to Phase 2 was taken to mean a move to Phase 4 — the reopening plan’s final stage — by many residents who went back to life as if it was normal. The health secretary emphasized how important behaviors are to keep driving COVID-19 rates down.
“It’s a full-time job. You have to do this day in and day out,” he said. “And I know it can feel tiring to do this for a long time, and that’s what it takes. Talking about the winter season coming up and people being in even tighter confines indoors, we will have to sustain this. From the beginning, I’ve said there will be a different way of engaging and a new normal for quite some time.”
While statewide trends are encouraging, there are still particular communities that have been hit with COVID-19 surges in recent weeks.
“No county, no town, regardless of what your size is, is really immune from having an outbreak,” Lofy said. “Overall population immunity is low in big and small cities, so I think it’s possible we can see outbreaks anywhere throughout the state.”