Cases caused by the Omicron variant of COVID-19 are intensifying in Washington, as in virtually every state across the country. Statewide case rates are higher than at any time in the nearly two years since the pandemic began, and hospitals are near their peak, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news conference last week.
COVID infections are rising in Okanogan County, but the case rate isn’t as high as in western Washington. The county recorded 133 new cases in the eight days ending Jan. 10, the highest rate since early November. Eleven of those cases were in Twisp, six in Winthrop, and two in Methow. Last week, Okanogan County had 34 cases in six days.
But Okanogan County health officials are very concerned by COVID rates, particularly because neighboring counties already have extremely high infection rates, Okanogan County Health Officer James Wallace told the Board of Health on Tuesday (Jan. 11).
Omicron has a shorter incubation period and moves at least twice as fast through populations as other variants, Wallace said. He expects Okanogan County will see comparable levels of infection soon.
While many people experience more mild disease from this variant, because so many are becoming infected, there will still be a significant proportion who become severely ill and require hospitalization, state Secretary of Health Umair Shah said in a briefing last week.
Requests for tests at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster are going up, and the positivity rate is increasing as well – 40% of those who’d been exposed or had symptoms tested positive last week, Three Rivers Business Development Coordinator Jennifer Best told the Methow Valley News.
The greater demand means that Three Rivers is running low on tests they can process in-house, so results take longer, Best said. They’ve had to reserve rapid tests for travel and for patients who need to be transferred to another hospital, Best said.
Inslee announced new measures to help with the shortage, including 5.5 million at-home COVID tests. One million tests are earmarked for schools, 1 million for local health jurisdictions, and the rest for the public. They anticipate having another round of free tests later this month, Inslee said.
Ideally, people should get tested if they have symptoms or have been exposed to COVID. But, with the current shortage of tests, health officials recommend that anyone with symptoms should presume they are infected with COVID and stay home, state Secretary for COVID-19 Response Lacy Fehrenbach said. People who’ve been exposed to someone who’s ill should be diligent about masking and social distancing.
State health and education officials are committed to keeping schools open for in-person learning. The state Department of Health (DOH) has issued a new “test to stay” protocol, which allows students to attend class and participate in extracurricular activities for five days after exposure if they follow certain requirements. It also applies to staff.
Students must have no symptoms, wear a mask, be tested at least twice during the five-day quarantine period, and not participate in social gatherings and community activities, according to the DOH policies issued this month.
Stress on hospitals
Emergency rooms are overwhelmed and should be used only for genuine emergencies, Shah said. Although the system is stressed, it is not at crisis standards – there are still places to care for patients.
A bigger issue than space in hospitals is the scarcity of staff, in part because some are quarantining because they’ve been exposed to COVID. Because many of these exposures come from community transmission, it’s another reason that it’s crucial for people to be up to date on their vaccines to protect health care workers, state COVID-19 Incident Commander Andrew Rose said.
Staffing at Three Rivers has been stable, Best said. Still, Wallace is concerned that, as Omicron cases mount, local hospitals won’t be able to accommodate patients. Transferring people is made more difficult by winter weather, he said.
New school athletic guidelines
With the presence of Omicron and a rapid increase in infections in North Central Washington, health officers from Okanogan, Chelan-Douglas, Grant and Kittitas counties issued new safety guidelines last week for schools and athletic programs in Region 7.
Masks are required for all athletes, staff and spectators at indoor events. Attendance is restricted to 50% of capacity. Anyone with COVID symptoms or who has been advised to isolate or quarantine is prohibited from attending as a participant or spectator.
Family Health Centers and Aero Methow Rescue Service host a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Friday (Jan. 14) from noon-4 p.m. at the Winthrop Barn. Resister on the Okanogan County Public Health website. Pfizer, Janssen/J&J, and Moderna vaccines available for 5 years of age and older. For information, call 800-660-2129.