The onslaught of COVID cases that Okanogan County Public Health officials were bracing for has arrived, with new cases shattering all records.
“Omicron has hit us, and it’s hit us fast and furious,” Okanogan County Health Officer James Wallace said last week.
While that’s putting pressure on health care providers – and on everyone in the community, as schools and businesses scramble to ensure they have enough workers to remain open – researchers have learned so much about COVID that we know how to deal with this, Wallace said.
That includes familiar precautions – masking, ideally layering two masks or using an N95 mask; washing your hands frequently; and staying home if you have symptoms, even just a runny nose, according to Washington Department of Health (DOH) Chief Science Officer Tao Kwan-Gett.
Okanogan County is seeing its highest case rates by far in the two years of the pandemic, with the rate per 100,000 over 14 days at 1,693 per 100,000. The previous high was in September and October 2021, when the Delta variant pushed the rate above 1,000. As recently as the end of December, the rate was just 150 per 100,000, which shows how quickly Omicron has spread.
In five days, as of Jan. 22, Okanogan County Public Health reported 389 new COVID cases, with counts on three of those days topping 100. Fifty-three of those cases were in the Methow Valley, with 26 in Twisp and 22 in Winthrop, plus one each in Mazama and Methow and three in Carlton.
Still, the true number of positives in the community is much higher, because not all positive results from home kits are reported to Public Health and, with the high volume of cases, health care organizations are behind in sending out notifications, said Jessica Kuzma, who handles communications for Public Health.
Because Omicron is extremely contagious and it takes less time after exposure to get sick, health officials have seen infections from the variant increase exponentially across the country. Omicron moves quickly and has already started to ebb in some regions, Wallace said. He expects that Okanogan County’s spike will pass in a couple of weeks.
There are crucial reasons to take precautions to keep COVID from spreading. Some people have underlying conditions that could put them at risk of serious illness or death if they get COVID. Beyond that, people hospitalized for other reasons, like a heart attack, stroke or fracture, may not get the level of care they need because COVID is absorbing so many resources, Wallace said.
COVID vaccines – particularly with a booster shot – are effective at protecting people. People who are vaccinated are three times less likely to get infected and, if they do get COVID, they tend to have a milder case, Wallace said.
Unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to require hospitalization and 15 times more likely to die from COVID, Kwan-Gett said.
In the midst of the surge, testing isn’t as available as we’d like it to be, Kwan-Gett said. People who don’t have symptoms and didn’t have a recent exposure don’t need to test. Anyone with COVID symptoms should assume they have COVID and isolate at home, even if they can’t get a test, he said.
Supply-chain disruptions have reduced the COVID tests the state has for distribution to schools, hospitals and nursing homes. The state has allocated half of those tests to schools, Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable said.
The shortage isn’t expected to affect the Methow school district. Anticipating a potential shortfall, school nurse Adriana Vanbianchi and district COVID Liaison Annelisa Tornberg secured enough extra tests to cover the next three weeks, Venable said.
The state has been requiring three tests per week for all student athletes. The district also has tests for the “test to stay” program that allows students who’ve been exposed to COVID – but who aren’t sick – to attend classes as long as they test negative.
Free, rapid, at-home COVID tests are now available through the state and federal governments, although supplies are limited. People can order four free tests per household through a federal program. The tests ship seven to 12 days after an order is placed.
The state launched its own program to distribute up to five free tests per household, but demand was so great that they gave out all tests on the first day. The state doesn’t have a date for when more tests will come in.
The link for the federal program is COVIDtests.gov. The link for the state program is www.sayyescovidhometest.org.
In addition, the Biden administration has required health insurance companies to cover up to eight tests per insured person per month. Some health plans will cover the tests up front, so that the individual doesn’t have to wait for reimbursement. Others will reimburse after a claim is filed.
Local clinics and Aero Methow Rescue Service still have tests available. Aero Methow is testing every day but Saturday from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. in Twisp.
People can report a positive at-home test through the state’s COVID-19 hotline at 1-800-525-0127 (then press #).
• Winthrop Barn, Friday, Jan. 28, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
All vaccines: Moderna, J&J and Pfizer (including pediatric vaccine for 5-11 year-olds). First, second and third doses. Bring your vaccine card.
Register at okanogancountycovid19.org/covid-19-vaccine. For more info, call Family Health Centers at (509) 422-5700.
• Ulrich’s Valley Pharmacy, Monday to Saturday
Moderna vaccine and booster; make appointment at healthmartcovidvaccine.com.
• Confluence Health, Winthrop, Monday to Friday
Pfizer vaccine and booster; call for appointment (509) 826-1800
Okanogan County switches to weekly COVID reporting
Okanogan County Public Health will switch to weekly reporting of COVID cases starting the week of Jan. 24, instead of daily updates. With high numbers of positive cases, Public Health doesn’t always receive case counts in a timely fashion, which means they can’t assure the accuracy of daily case counts, Public Health announced on Monday (Jan. 24).
The weekly updates will be available on Wednesdays at okanogancountycovid19.org and on their Facebook page.