An unvaccinated Clallam County man in his 70s died of COVID-19 complications Wednesday, county health officer Dr. Allison Berry said Thursday.
It was the 13th death attributed to the pandemic in Clallam County and the first since May.
Four Jefferson County residents have died of COVID-19 since records were kept, so the most recent death brings the North Olympic Peninsula total to 17 deaths.
The man, who was not identified by health officials, contracted the virus as part of a recent outbreak in a Clallam County church that Berry would not name.
“We’re incredibly sorry for this loss to this man’s family and to our community,” Berry said Thursday.
“We also want to remind folks that these deaths are largely preventable, and we would really encourage folks to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
It was not immediately known whether the man had contracted one of the COVID-19 variants now circulating among the unvaccinated population.
Berry said the variants are more dangerous and contagious than the COVID-19 strain that first emerged on the North Olympic Peninsula last spring.
“I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh if I get it, I’ll just get a cold,’ but that’s not true anymore,” Berry said in a telephone interview.
“This virus is very severe. If you are unvaccinated, the risk of death if you get it is actually quite high, especially if you are over 65 and unvaccinated, but we’re even seeing people in their 30s and 40s ending up in the ICU.”
Three new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Clallam County on Thursday, bringing the 16-month total to 1,468.
Each of the new cases were contacts of recent cases not related to June outbreaks that infected 24 at a Clallam County church and 17 at a long-term care facility, Berry said.
The church and long-term care facility have not been identified to encourage participation in contact tracing, among other reasons, Berry has said.
“We are still doing some work with the long-term care facility to make sure that their infection control is on track, and that’s really stimulated an effort to loop back with the other long-term care facilities in town,” Berry said Thursday.
“We’ve seen that, in other long-term care facilities, even though they haven’t had outbreaks yet, that we are seeing some slacking of infection-control practices, largely related to new staff coming on.”
Jefferson County had no new COVID-19 cases or virus-related deaths Thursday, Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said.
Jefferson County has had 450 confirmed cases since March 2020.
Recent sequencing of Jefferson County cases found 10 Alpha variants and six Epsilon variants, the latter of which emerged in California.
“Alpha and Epsilon are what surged early in Washington state, and now Alpha is dropping and it’s being replaced with Gamma, the Brazilian-origin strain, and Delta, the India-origin strain,” Locke said.
The Delta strain is “about twice as contagious” as the original strain of COVID-19, Locke said.
Locke said it is not a question of if, but when, unvaccinated people will become infected with the variants.
“Death and severe illness is completely preventable if people get vaccinated,” Locke said in a Thursday interview.
“It’s really hard to understand why people are taking that risk, but I think one of the reasons — and it’s something we’ve really got to message carefully — is people think the pandemic’s over.
“They think that all these restrictions are being relaxed, or removed, because the pandemic’s over, and that is just simply not true,” Locke added.
“What’s happening is the pandemic is bifurcating, and it’s now the pandemic is predominately occurring in people who are unvaccinated. But globally, things are worse than they’ve ever been.”
State COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed Wednesday as Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency orders expired.
Jefferson County has its own masking requirement for unvaccinated people in indoor areas.
People who enter the Jefferson County Courthouse are required to show proof of vaccination or sign a form attesting that they have been vaccinated in order to remove their mask, Locke said.
“With a pandemic, what happens elsewhere in the world eventually comes back to the United States,” Locke said.
“We’re seeing areas of the U.S. where rates are going up again, and we think that’s going to get a lot worse this summer in some of the southern states that have really low vaccination rates.”
Clallam County’s latest cases had not been sequenced for the variants, Berry said.
“We’re starting to anticipate that very soon the majority of our cases will be variants,” Berry said.
Berry said it is “totally safe” for people to gather outdoors over the Fourth of July weekend.
“But if you are unvaccinated, we are concerned about large groups of people coming indoors, and we would still really recommend against that for people who are unvaccinated,” Berry said.
“The other thing we do recommend against is travel if you’re unvaccinated as well. We certainly have seen how the variants have come in to our community is out-of-state, usually air travel.”
Vaccination clinics on the North Olympic Peninsula this week can be found at www.peninsuladailynews.com/news/official-covid-19-droplets-evaporate-in-high-temperatures.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.