Weekly COVID briefing: Officials explain higher positive test numbers, address relaxed long-term care visitation standards

County Executive Dave Somers provided a quick overview of county response efforts, and stressed the importance of continuing to wear masks and social distance.

While Snohomish County officials took on a number of issues in Tuesday’s weekly COVID briefing, the ones garnering the most attention focused on the recent increase in positive test results – jumping from 5.8% to 9% percent for the period of July 26-August 1 – and the effect of Gov. Inslee’s recent announcement of relaxed standards for protocols governing Snohomish County’s long-term care facility visitation, set to take effect Wednesday.

County Executive Dave Somers kicked things off by reviewing the situation in the county and reminding attendees that we are all in this together.

“The entire county is negatively affected,” Somers said, “but step back and remember that the region, the country and the world are suffering right along with us. For us no one is untouched – major manufacturers to mom and pop stores, families with school age kids, the elderly to name a few.  It’s a shock to the community, but we need to bear in mind that there are two ways out: an effective vaccine, and until this is available practicing widespread social distancing and mask-wearing.  We’ve sent folks to the moon, we’ve cured complex diseases, but it takes effort. Right now, the best things we can do to contain the infection is to wear masks, not gather in groups, and practice social distancing.”

Somers also highlighted the various grant programs the county has rolled out to help businesses large and small, the aerospace industry, and workers who have been furloughed or laid off due to the pandemic. He also referenced an upcoming meeting with the Snohomish County Aerospace Task Force aimed at promoting the county as the best place to make airplanes.  “We have a 50-year history with Boeing,” he observed.  “I’m looking forward to another 50 years.”

Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish County Health Officer, explained some recent data trends including demographics and test results.

Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish County Health Officer, then reviewed some recent data trends, pointing out that our case rate (cases per 100,000 population over a two-week rolling period) is showing encouraging signs of dropping off during the last two reporting intervals.

“This is good signal,” he added. “The efforts of the community in reducing group gatherings, wearing face masks, and practicing social distancing are all critical to bring this down.”

He also reviewed some recent trends in COVID demographics, noting that in the most recent reporting period, younger age groups seem to be backing off from the increases of previous weeks, while at the same time older age groups are flattening or showing slight increases.

“This is a possible warning signal,” Spitters said.  “It’s too soon at this point to speculate on whether these are aberrations or trends, but we will be keeping a keen eye especially on the older age groups in the coming weeks.”

Dr. Spitters used this chart to illustrate his explanation of the recent data showing an encouraging decrease in the critical Phase 2 criterion of the number of new cases per 100,000 population over a rolling two-week period.

Moving on to testing numbers, Spitters pointed out that the testing system has experienced considerable strain recently with shortages of re-agents and other equipment, and backlogs in the labs.

“This has led virtually all clinical testing programs to back off of widespread testing that includes asymptomatic individuals,” he explained.  “This doesn’t mean those without symptoms aren’t being tested, but it is now targeted to those who have documented exposure through close contact or are part of an outbreak.”

He further explained that by eliminating those less likely to test positive, fewer total tests are being administered, while at the same time the actual number of positives has remained fairly constant. With a lower number of individuals in the test pool, a steady number of positives will result in a higher percent (see accompanying table).

Spitters used this table to clarify the math behind the recent increase in test positivity to 9%.

In response to a reporter question about whether the 9% increase in test positivity should be cause for alarm, Spitters responded that while the reason for the increase is fewer tests overall combined with a fairly steady number of positive results, it is “concerning and bears watching.”

Asked about how Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent announcement of a plan to relax visiting standards at long-term care facilities in a Phase 2 approach set to begin this Wednesday, Spitters took some extra time to explain the standards underlying which counties can actually take this step.

He began by pointing out that the Phase 2 qualifying criteria for long-term care facilities are separate from those for the Safe Start program. He went on to clarify that while Snohomish County has qualified for Phase 2 under Safe Start, our case ratio means we do not qualify under the long-term care facilities criteria.

“For these purposes we are still in Phase 1,” he explained. “This means there can be no indoor person-to-person visitation in long-term care facilities until we get below 25 cases in two weeks per 100,000 population. Outdoor visits and window visits with proper face coverings and distancing are still allowed.”

Another question addressed the Health District’s community outreach program and how much it is costing, to which both Spitters and Somers responded that while it comprises a “big amount of our day-to-day activity,” neither had the cost figures at their fingertips.

Therese Quinn, Medical Reserve Corps coordinator, provided a rundown of the all-volunteer MRC and how they are a critical piece of the county’s COVID response team.

The final question referenced the recent death (not in Snohomish County) of someone under 20 years old, and whether the officials have anything to say to parents and young people regarding this.

“This is another signal to all of us that while the elderly are more vulnerable, it can happen to anyone,” said Spitters.  “While we are all sad for this individual, family and loved ones, it is a reminder that limiting transmission is on all of us, and that we do this by keeping our social circles small, wearing masks, and maintaining appropriate social distancing.”

Also present was Therese Quinn, Medical Reserve Corps coordinator, who provided a rundown of what the MRC does and specifically how this all-volunteer group has been supporting the COVID response efforts — by assisting in clinics and operations centers, functioning as couriers and screeners, and providing direct health support. She appealed to anyone who has the time and the desire, to join as a volunteer. “You don’t need to be a health care professional,” she added.  “Just the desire to make a positive contribution to the community.”

— By Larry Vogel


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