2 years after Washington identified nation’s first COVID case, future of pandemic remains unclear

Jan 20, 2022, 10:02 AM | Updated: 10:45 am
COVID Washington two years...
Gov. Jay Inslee in January of 2020, announcing what was then the first identified case of COVID-19 in the U.S. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

As of this week, it has been exactly two years since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Washington, and in the United States.

Washington crests 10,000 total COVID-19 deaths since start of pandemic

The U.S. case was identified in a Snohomish County man in his 30s who had traveled through Sea-Tac Airport after a trip to China’s Wuhan region. He was hospitalized with pneumonia on Jan. 19, 2020. Testing revealed that he was positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 20, which was then announced to the public the following day.

In Washington, over 984,000 total COVID cases have been identified since then. Factoring in probable cases as well, that number balloons to over a million, in addition to 10,230 deaths and 50,331 hospitalizations statewide.

The state has also made significant progress in its vaccination efforts, having distributed over 12 million doses since vaccines became widely available. It’s estimated that 63% of Washington’s total population has been fully vaccinated, defined by the state Department of Health as anyone who has received either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. That number does not account for booster shots.

Commenting on the last two years in a written statement, the DOH touted how its early response efforts were among the leaders in the nation “by being proactive, transparent, and tough in its fight to protect people from the fast-spreading virus.”

The statement continued:

Over the past two years, our lives have changed dramatically at school, at work, and at home. Many holidays and special events had to be put on hold until ‘safer options’ were available. In early 2021, as we reflected on one year of the pandemic, we watched as COVID-19 vaccines became available in our communities, which brought a sense of safety.

As more and more people were vaccinated, we saw businesses re-open, children head back to the classroom, and people return to their everyday lives. Boosters came into play just a few months later as new variants threatened to set us back.

Now, looking back on two years of pandemic response, we can say we are proud of the countless lives that have been saved by the partnerships in and around the public health system. We want to thank everyone who has done something to make their neighbor a little bit safer during this unprecedented time.

Some counties lag behind in vaccination rates, though. That includes Stevens County, which currently sits at a 36.5% vaccination rate across all demographics, as well as Skamania (40%), Ferry (38.7%), Asotin (42%), and Pend Oreille (41%) counties.

Despite Washington lifting most of its capacity restrictions as part of a June 30, 2021, “reopening,” COVID-19 has remained a constant presence, marked by numerous subsequent surges driven by highly infectious variant strains.

Timeline: A look back at Washington state’s COVID-19 response

That included an increase in cases and hospitalizations at the tail-end of last summer driven by the delta variant, before soaring to record levels in December and January with the arrival of the omicron variant.

That’s had everyone from hospitals to schools to ferry services dealing with staffing shortages, with students in several districts returning to remote learning, public transportation grappling with cancellations and delays, and health care workers facing perhaps their most difficult challenges to date.

It’s believed that the omicron-fueled surge may finally be starting to wane in most areas of Western Washington, although “we are also seeing an acceleration in the growth of cases in some parts of Eastern Washington,” DOH Chief Science Officer Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett warned in a briefing earlier this week.

Because hospitalizations tend to lag behind cases, there will likely still be a couple of weeks of growth in hospitalizations before those numbers start to drop as well.

As for what the future of the pandemic may look like in a post-omicron world, that remains unclear.

“It really looked like evolution [of the virus] was slowing and we were approaching something like equilibrium, but Omicron upended this,” Fred Hutchinson scientist Dr. Trevor Bedford said on Twitter. “Now I don’t know what to expect.”

“My big question now is to what extent will Omicron-like emergence events characterize ‘endemic’ circulation of SARS-CoV-2?” he added. “Given it occurred once, having it occur again would not be at all surprising, but I don’t know whether to expect this every year or every ten.”

KIRO Newsradio reporter Nicole Jennings contributed to this story

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2 years after Washington identified nation’s first COVID case, future of pandemic remains unclear