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King County health officer: ‘Be cautiously optimistic,’ but COVID risk remains

Artwork covers the windows of a closed business in the Ballard neighborhood during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (MyNorthwest photo)

There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic in respect to COVID-19, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer with Public Health — Seattle & King County, said in his weekly update. But he also warned now is not the time to let up.

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As of March 5, there have been more than 82,000 cases of COVID-19 in King County since the outbreak began a year ago, more than 5,100 hospitalizations, and more than 1,400 deaths.

“We are in a much better place today than we were a month ago,” Duchin said, adding that with the good news comes reasons for caution.

“With continued attention to COVID-19 prevention and increasing vaccination, there is a good chance we will be much closer to normal life this summer,” he said. “However, our case rates have stopped decreasing and the more infectious, and possibly more severe, variants are increasing.”

A few weeks ago, Dr. Duchin equated society’s position in the COVID-19 pandemic to being in the eye of a hurricane. This week, he says the forecast may have improved, but “we still need to prepare for potentially stormy weather ahead.”

While cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have decreased since the third wave peaked in December and January, King County is now just over 90% back to where it was when the third wave started last fall. The third wave accounted for three quarters of the total cases in the county and half of the hospitalizations and deaths. Over the last week, there was an average of 133 daily cases reported in King County, compared to 76 daily before the third wave and 778 daily at the peak in early December.

Dr. Duchin added that over the past two weeks, the recent decline in new cases has flattened out. That plateau began about two weeks after the region moved into Phase 2, which has increased the county’s activities and interactions. The public health department is watching closely for signs of an increase in cases, or in hospitalizations, which typically lag a few weeks behind any increase in cases.

“After a relatively long and steep downhill ride, we have a warning light on the dashboard that we need to pay attention to,” Duchin said.

Overall, Duchin warns that we cannot get comfortable as there remains a threat of a fourth wave.

“If we get too comfortable and don’t suppress the spread of COVID-19, if we travel and gather to the extent we did during the summer and winter holiday seasons, we will increase the risk of experiencing another large surge of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths this spring,” he said.

“So we’re getting closer, but we’re not out of danger yet,” Duchin added. “Letting up on important COVID-19 prevention measures too soon is like jumping from an airplane and throwing off your parachute before you reach the ground.”

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Dr. Duchin explains that continuing the COVID-19 precautions that have been proven to limit the spread of this virus — including wearing well-fitted masks, limiting activities, and improving ventilation — in addition to increased vaccination coverage, will help decrease the risk of a fourth wave.

“My bottom line for today is, again, that we can be cautiously optimistic, but significant risk and uncertainty remains,” he said. “… This virus is relentless. We can’t let up now. But we need to continue to take all our precautions. Hope for the best, but at the same time, being prepared for the worst for just a few more months.”

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