King County Meeting Phase 3 Metrics Ahead Of State's 1st Review
SEATTLE — King County is poised to meet both metrics to remain in Phase 3 after the state's first evaluation Monday, despite a sustained rise in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations since mid-March.
Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County's health officer, hosted his weekly COVID-19 briefing on Friday, providing the latest snapshot of coronavirus activity and vaccination efforts. While increases appear to have hit a plateau, helping keep King County within the Phase 3 markers for now, transmission levels remain high.
"Cases and hospitalizations are substantial and holding steady this week," Duchin said. "The increases we've seen recently are likely due to the combination of increasing activities and the impact of more variant strains that together promote the spread of COVID-19. We can't predict with certainty whether cases will rise, fall or remain stable in the coming days, but with an increasing number of more dangerous variants and our current level of vaccine coverage, along with increasing activities, we remain at risk for a serious outbreak."
According to the county's key indicators dashboard, King County narrowly meets the threshold to stay in Phase 3, showing a rate of 188 cases per 100,000 people reported over two weeks and a hospitalization rate of 3.9 per 100,000 over one week.
On Monday, state leaders will revisit the metrics for the first time since Phase 3 began. Previously, failing one of the two targets could trigger a rollback to Phase 2. On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced counties would have to fail both targets to move backward.
"The state will be announcing their assessment of the metrics on Monday," Duchin said. "However, King County has not crossed either of these thresholds as of today. We have, however, been trending toward the thresholds since mid-March, and we need to be ready to adjust course if needed and move back from Phase 3 to Phase 2 if necessary."
Duchin said forecasting the virus's spread is unreliable, and the county is still at risk of crossing the threshold if residents fail to keep their guard up for a little bit longer.
"I really would have thought, based on our trajectory last week, that we would have crossed that threshold this week," Duchin said. "It's very much dependant on our behaviors, how we interact in the community, the safety measures that we take in our homes, in our workplaces and when we socialize. Hopefully, we'll be able to exercise restraint for just a few more weeks as more people become vaccinated...however, we are not there yet."
Over the last week, Duchin said the county reported an average of 255 new cases each day — a figure similar to the week before but up 80 percent from mid-March. Case rates are trending upward for all age groups under 65, and remain highest in young adults between 18 and 24 years old.
The number of hospital admissions for COVID-19 in King County has doubled since March but stabilized around 85 patients reported each week. Duchin said recent hospitalizations are primarily among people ages 40 to 69 but are also gaining ground among people in their 20s.
"The increasing number of hospitalizations among young adults reinforces that, although the rate of hospitalizations is low in this group when COVID-19 is widespread, severe cases will occur, even in younger people," Duchin said. "COVID-19 can cause severe disease in people of all ages."
Heightened vaccine supply strains loom ahead of April 15 eligibility expansion
King County's immunization efforts have reached approximately 88 percent of people 65 and older with at least one dose, and 72 percent in that age group are fully vaccinated. However, risks are high for vulnerable adults who still need their shots, especially as community transmission increases.
"Clearly the threat of COVID-19 will decrease as more people are protected through vaccination," Duchin said. "Today, vaccination alone is not enough. Abandoning COVID-19 prevention behaviors now is like sending the fire department away while the house is still burning."
Earlier in the week, King County reached the one million dose milestone, and more than 800,000 residents have received at least one shot, Duchin said. When eligibility broadly expands on April 15, the county is preparing for heightened supply challenges and potential delays.
"In King County, this means next week almost 1 million people 16 and older will be eligible for vaccination, including 650,000 estimated to be newly eligible and about 275,000 currently eligible and not yet vaccinated," Duchin said. "At the same time, Washington Department of Health has informed us that the vaccine supply will not be increasing as predicted over the next three weeks."
Duchin said deliveries expected next week were likely to cover between two-thirds and three-fourths of the supply needed to keep up with currently eligible groups. The disparity will become even more apparent next Thursday.
"The mismatch between supply and demand will make it harder for all who are eligible to get appointments as soon as we would have liked," Duchin said. "We have had the capacity, the plans and partnerships in place to serve all who are eligible as soon as we have sufficient supply of vaccine, and we are committed to providing vaccines as quickly as we can get them. At the same time, we do not want to sacrifice equity for simplicity."
While supplies are limited, Duchin said the county will focus on support providers reaching the most vulnerable and underserved communities who are most likely to encounter difficulty in securing vaccine appointments.
Until vaccinations become widely accessible in the weeks and months ahead, tried and true preventative measures will remain essential, including limiting social events with unvaccinated groups, avoiding crowded indoor spaces and continuing to wear well-fitted, well-made masks outside the home. If that happens, Duchin said King County is likely to be in a much better position by late spring.
"I want to remind everyone how quickly this virus can move, and how hard it is to slow once it gains momentum. Until enough of us are vaccinated, we need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 where we work, where we socialize, in our personal lives, in our homes, our businesses and anywhere people gather. As more of us are vaccinated, the risk will gradually subside, but it's not an on/off switch. We need to work together for a couple more weeks in preventing COVID transmission in the community, and I believe by sometime in May the risk will have greatly diminished."