By Marcy Stamper
Restaurants, gyms and movie theaters in Okanogan County can continue to offer indoor dining and amenities at 50% capacity, following the state’s review of COVID and hospitalization case counts this week. After assessing the numbers on Monday (April 12), the Washington Department of Health (DOH) determined that Okanogan County’s COVID case numbers meet the criteria for staying in Phase 3. But the state downgraded three counties — Pierce, Whitman and Cowlitz — to Phase 2.
“When we see increased rates of cases and hospitalizations, we need to act fast and do the right thing county-by-county to prevent more serious consequences from COVID-19 in our state. That is why the tough decisions are being made and some counties are being moved back to Phase 2,” state Secretary of Health Umair Shah said.
While infection rates are now ominously high in those three counties, there’s “still time to turn the tide and slow the spread of COVID-19 before it turns into a fourth wave,” Shah said. The preventive measures of Phase 2, which reduce capacity in restaurants and restrict indoor gatherings in homes to five people, are necessary to avoid another surge, he said.
The state evaluates each county individually, using different metrics for small and large counties. Gov. Jay Inslee revised the guidelines last week, so that unless a county fails to meet the metrics for both new COVID cases and new hospitalizations, the county stays in its current phase. All counties have been in Phase 3 for the past three weeks.
If statewide ICU capacity drops below 10%, all counties revert to the previous phase.
Waiting for Phase 4
Counties that meet both metrics for a higher-level phase can move forward, although no Phase 4 criteria have been established yet.
“Given the incredible progress on vaccinations and our focus protecting people from severe illness, we believe analyzing and requiring both metrics together is the right approach to make sure we’re considering the connection between COVID cases and our medical system and hospitalizations,” Inslee said.
All three counties that were moved back to Phase 2 are evaluated as large counties (population above 50,000), where the rate of new cases must be below 200 per 100,000 population over 14 days, and the hospitalization rate below five over seven days.
From March 29 to April 4, Pierce County had a case rate of 268 and a hospitalization rate of 6.4. Whitman County had a case rate of 416 and hospitalization rate of 5.9. Cowlitz County had a case rate of 332 and hospitalization rate of 11.8. Hospitalizations were measured from March 24 to 30.
Small counties (population under 50,000) are evaluated based on the actual number of new COVID cases in 14 days (it must be below 100 to remain in Phase 3) and on new hospitalizations in seven days (it must be below three).
Okanogan County had 62 cases and one hospitalization in the same time frame, keeping it comfortably in Phase 3.
Chelan and Douglas counties both came close to being sent back to Phase 2. Chelan was just under the case rate of 200, with 199.6 cases per 100,000 population. The hospitalization rate there was 6.3. Douglas County, evaluated as a small county, exceeded the new-case metric with 115 infections, but had only one hospitalization, which allowed it to stay in Phase 3, according to DOH.
Counties are evaluated every three weeks on Mondays, with phase changes taking effect on Friday. The next evaluation will be May 3.
Okanogan County recorded 33 new COVID cases in the eight days ending Monday (April 12), including one in Winthrop, one in Twisp, and two in Mazama. Omak had the highest number of infections, with 11. The county recorded no additional deaths from the disease.
The latest data bring the number of cases in the county over 14 days to 61, and the rate per 100,000 population to 143.
Public health officials are seeing the impact of COVID vaccinations, with new cases dropping as different groups get vaccinated. A smaller proportion of adults 60 and older have tested positive since mid-February, compared to the proportion of the population in that age group, DOH said in its biweekly report on COVID transmission for April 7.
Conversely, the 20- to 29-year-old age group now accounts for a disproportionately large number of cases, DOH said.
Statewide, the steepest increase in cases has been in people ages 10 to 49, with shallower increases in children from 0 to 9 and in adults from 50 to 69, DOH said.
Hospital admission rates have declined since early January among all age groups, and even more steeply among those 70 and older, which DOH said is most likely because those people were among the first to be vaccinated.
DOH is concerned that the decline is hospitalizations has been flattening in some age groups, including those 40 to 49 and those 70 and above. Hospitalizations are increasing in younger people and in people from 60 to 69.