SEATTLE — Washington is expected to surpass 5,000 COVID-19 deaths this week — almost exactly a year after the first was announced in the United States.
But while the state absorbs that painful milestone, health officials are hopeful that a recent, consistent decline in deaths, combined with a ramp-up of vaccine distribution and continued masking and social distancing, mean better days are ahead.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to continue the trend that’s decreasing — and if we can stay ahead of the variants with vaccines and good measures, we’ll continue to improve,” said Peter Rabinowitz, a University of Washington professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and director of the UW Center for One Health Research.
The state reported 1,166 new cases and 14 more deaths Friday, which brought Washington to 338,822 infections and 4,956 deaths — a death rate of about 64.7 deaths per 100,000 residents. The state also reported 19,275 people have been hospitalized.
In King County, the state’s most populous, state health officials have confirmed 83,801 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,394 deaths as of Friday.
Following predictions of an increase in infections during the winter, the state hit the highest daily number of deaths during the pandemic on Dec. 21 and Jan. 4, with 43 each day. Near the end of January, the seven-day rolling average had dropped from about 38 deaths per day to about 15 per day, according to the state Department of Health (DOH).
Despite the encouraging trend, Rabinowitz said, challenges remain. For example, he said, health and public officials here and nationally still haven’t figured out how to keep the virus from disproportionately infecting certain groups, especially communities of color.
In Washington, confirmed or probable case rates for Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic/Latino populations are about four times higher than for white and Asian populations, according to a DOH report published this month.
In addition, the death rates from COVID-19 among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities are nearly six times higher than for the white population, the DOH report said.
And even though vaccination efforts have slowed infection, hospitalization and death rates, recent state data shows shots have so far gone disproportionately to white Washington residents.
A DOH spokesperson told The Seattle Times this month officials are still analyzing the race data, and haven’t come to any conclusions about inequities.
People 80 and older have accounted for about half of the state’s virus deaths. The next most impacted age group includes those ages 60 and 79 years old, who represent about 40% of deaths, followed by those in their 40s and 50s, who make up about 9% of deaths.
The first coronavirus death in Washington — and the U.S. — was announced Feb. 29, 2020. The King County man was in his 50s and had an underlying health condition. He was a patient at EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland.
The same day, two more cases were identified at Life Care Center of Kirkland, prompting Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency. The next day, March 1, officials confirmed a second virus death — a patient in his 70s at EvergreenHealth — and two additional cases, bringing the total number of cases in King County to six.
The death toll grew to 294 by the end of March, marking the first wave of the pandemic last spring. By the end of April, 840 people were dead. Within another month, 1,000.
(As information is reviewed, DOH officials retroactively adjust daily death counts, meaning numbers on the state’s data dashboard can change.)
The initial spring surge was much more driven by outbreaks in long-term care facilities, but as the pandemic has progressed, the state watched demographics shift, said Katie Hutchinson, a health statistics manager for DOH. The most recent surge in cases, for example, was driven by younger people, she said.
Mortality rates temporarily slowed, but started rising again during a summer surge.
The state surpassed 2,000 deaths by mid-September. And a few weeks after the new year began, we exceeded 4,000.
”People were getting tired of social distancing measures,” Rabinowitz said. “A couple holidays in a row had an effect. And respiratory illnesses are almost always worse in the winter.”
Since then, the daily count has been steadily decreasing, averaging about 15 per day, according to the state.
Washington, a state of 7.6 million residents, has reported fewer deaths than the majority of the country, with 29 states confirming more deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. California, the state that’s recorded the most virus-related deaths, last week hit 50,000 deaths, and New York and Texas have both reported more than 40,000.
Meanwhile, the death count in states with population sizes similar to Washington spans a fairly wide range. Arizona has reported roughly 15,000 deaths, while Virginia has counted about 8,000.
But while things seem to be looking up, with greater vaccine distribution and slowing infection rates, health officials are concerned about the new virus variants that have popped up in the U.S. and what they mean for our state.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) recently predicted that, in a worst-case scenario, the country — which this month saw deaths reach 500,000 — could see up to 654,000 deaths by the beginning of May and a resurgence of the virus in some states by the spring, rather than a continued decline.
“What we’re seeing is sobering, and will require us to continue taking this pandemic very seriously,” IHME director Christopher Murray said in a January statement. “Getting vaccines out quickly is essential, and masks are still one of the best tools we have to keep transmission low and avoid the worst possible outcome. People will need to continue taking precautions even once they are vaccinated, because of the potential for more contagious variants to spread.”
Still, health experts said there are positive take-aways from the past year of living through a pandemic.
”We’ve learned so much from COVID,” Rabinowitz said. “We’ve learned how to use disease models like we’ve never used before to help predict what’s going on, we’ve created a vaccine faster than we’ve ever created one before, we know what the general public is capable of doing in an emergency. ... And we can’t forget these lessons.”
Juliana Grant, a DOH surveillance section manager, shared similar sentiments.
”When you look at the pattern of cases versus deaths versus hospitalizations, we saw an enormous number of deaths last spring,” she said. “And a lot of that was because the virus got into a community of very vulnerable individuals and we didn’t know how to treat it. And we’re now a year later and the mortality rate is going down because we’ve learned a lot.”
Grant added that while we could be nearing the end of the pandemic, we still need to continue to mask up, distance ourselves from others and remain vigilant.
”There’s a lot of reason for optimism right now,” she said. “We’re not there yet though. ... We need to stay the course for a bit longer.”