County COVID-19 briefing: Cases continue to surge, but leaders say no plan to introduce more restrictions

Dr. Chris Spitters

Article updated to reflect that there were 1,700 new cases in past week.

New COVID-19 cases in Snohomish County are now at the second-highest rate since the pandemic began, with 1,700 new cases reported in the last week. County leaders say hospitals are under “significant pressure” to handle the increase in COVID patients.

But there are no plans to bring back restrictions that were imposed to fight COVID when coronavirus first erupted. At the county’s COVID briefing, a reporter asked why the county would not make its mask-up policy stronger in light of the resurgence?  “Some will absolutely not wear masks again,” said County Executive Dave Somers, “and there is precious little we can do about that; we wouldn’t’ be able to enforce it.”

The county’s Chief Health Officer, Dr. Chris Spitters, echoed Somers. “I don’t have an enforcement plan for this,” he said, adding that “we hope people feel compelled” to wear masks. It is, added Spitters “what we’re going to have to live with now.”

In what he said was a “wild estimate,” Somers figures that “maybe 70% of folks in grocery stores are wearing masks” now.

There also seems to be little appetite to re-impose tougher business restrictions to help slow the spread of the surging delta variant. Somers and Spitters agreed that is up to the state and the governor to decide; Spitters adding that “elected officials generally will lead the way on that.” Somers told reporters the county talks daily with the governor’s office about next steps. The priority, he said, is still to get more people vaccinated, but added, “the possibility of restrictions on business and things are still out there.”

Three things have converged to spark the surge in COVID. As we have reported, the delta variant is much more contagious than previous strains. Vaccines initially were about 90% effective in preventing illness; with the delta variant, that rate has dropped to 75-80% effectiveness. But Spitters said that still makes vaccines the best weapon against COVID. The doctor also reiterated that cutting back mask wearing and lack of social distancing feeds the virus surge. Add to that the 250,000 people over 12 in Snohomish County who are not vaccinated. “Some find it extremely frustrating to go back to masking,” Spitters agreed, but added “we have to do what is right, what protects the community.”

With K-12 classes beginning in a few weeks, Spitters said the state and local health department guidelines means masks for everyone — teachers and students — and keeping kids spaced apart as much as possible. But, because children under 12 still cannot be vaccinated, Spitters admitted that some will take the virus to school, not knowing they are sick yet; that we should expect some outbreaks. The focus is “to try to keep kids in school and try to keep kids and families safe,” he said.

There has also been an uptick in COVID cases in local long-term care facilities over the past month. At least 15 facilities now report one to three cases. One center had 15 cases, but that is now under control.

Governor Jay Inslee has mandated vaccinations for many state employees. What about county workers?

Somers told reporters that is still under discussion, but that no decision has been made on mandatory vaccinations. Masks are now required again indoors anywhere in county offices.

Asked about the prospect for booster shots, which is making national headlines now, Spitters said the federal government would have to extend the emergency use regulations to allow that. Somers added that, as of now, there has been “no recommendation for a booster in the United States, neither from the CDC or its advisory committee.”

— By Bob Throndsen

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