Hospitals are full. Health care possibly could be delayed for such injuries as car wrecks and illnesses such as strokes. Yet many are carrying on as though the COVID-19 pandemic were over, according to the North Olympic Peninsula public health officer.
Not only is the pandemic not over, it also is worse than it ever has been, according to Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.
On the eve of a mass return to in-person learning in schools, public health officials are documenting a constant rise in cases while admitting that they are catching only perhaps one in 10 of the cases actually in the community.
The priority is maintaining in-person learning in schools, so there could be restrictions in other areas in the near future, Berry said Friday during her weekly Clallam County Emergency Management briefing.
Proof of vaccination before a person can be seated in a restaurant and limits on capacity in businesses are under discussion, Berry said.
“Nothing has been decided,” she said.
“We’re looking at a lot of options.”
The measures are under discussion as ways to slow the spread of the pandemic and continue to allow public schools to stay open.
“Is it risky to go into a crowded restaurant right now where everyone has their mask off and they’re real close together? Yes. Yes it is.”
“Going into a crowded restaurant is dangerous. We are always hesitant to do anything that would damage our businesses, we certainly don’t want to damage the economy. But, I also think we need to be honest about the situation we’re in right now and how we can best mitigate it,” Berry said during the briefing.
Berry added she does have the power to order such mitigation measures.
However — “none of that has been decided. It is still in discussion,” she said.
An indoor mask mandate in businesses and governmental agencies for people age 5 and older went into effect in Clallam and Jefferson counties on Aug. 16, although adherence to the order has varied.
Discussions for further mitigation among county health officers and the state are still in progress, with more announcements expected over the next week, Berry said.
Olympic Medical Center is full, with some overflow into the emergency room, a situation exacerbated by staffing shortages, Berry said. Forks Community Hospital, which lacks an ICU, also is strained. Jefferson Healthcare in Port Townsend is the least affected hospital on the Peninsula because of the higher vaccination rate in Jefferson than in Clallam.
Hospitals in Kitsap, King and Pierce counties are also full, making transferring patients who need more intensive care extremely challenging, Berry said.
The staffing shortages are not due to Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate requiring workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 18, Berry said. They exist because of retirements and resignations due to exhaustion, because of depressed hiring and due to the fact that all hospitals across the nation are experiencing surges, she said.
Keep schools open
While mitigation measures are under discussion, the primary focus is keeping schools open this year, Berry said.
Control measures of mask wearing, social distancing and rapid testing are continuing since they were largely successful in preventing COVID-19 outbreaks in schools last year.
But it’s important that schools remain open to in-person learning, she said, because of the damage done to children and families in communities where schools were left closed or had limited in-person contact.
“We’ve never tried to open schools with this many cases,” Berry said. “What is important to me is we prioritize schools over other things.
“It is very important to me that we open them. But I am working with other health officers around the region on what else we need to close so schools can open.
“I don’t like closing things, but I think it was wrong of us to close schools but leave the bars open, for example.
“I think we should look at what other mitigations we can take, so schools can remain open.”
On Friday, Clallam County reported 74 more people infected with COVID-19, while Jefferson County added nine new cases, according to county public health data.
Clallam County’s rate is 679 cases per 100,000 population for the last two weeks as of Friday, a new record high for the county.
Jefferson County most recent recorded case rate was 263.32 cases per 100,000 for the two weeks prior to Aug. 21.
Clallam County had 18 residents hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday, with five in the intensive care unit, while Jefferson County had three, Berry said.
The COVID-19 outbreak at Clallam Bay Corrections Center rose to 26 cases, with 21 inmates and five staff members infected, Berry said.
Jefferson County has confirmed a total of 668 people infected with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, while Clallam County has confirmed 2,505 cases.
Twenty people have died from the disease in Clallam County and four have died in Jefferson County since the pandemic response began.
Since the beginning of February, 16.6 percent of new COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County have been among fully vaccinated residents, meaning that 84.4 cases have been among unvaccinated residents, according to county data.
During that same time period, 11.2 percent of new COVID-19 cases in Clallam County have been among fully vaccinated residents, meaning that 89.8 percent of cases have been among unvaccinated residents, according to county data.
The test positivity — the amount of COVID-19 tests returned positive — was 14.1 percent in Clallam County on Friday, which meant officials are finding only about 10 percent of the total cases circulating in the community, Berry said.
Jefferson’s most recent test positivity was reported for Aug. 16-22, which was recorded at 4.13 percent, according to county public health data.
Statewide, about 99 percent of COVID-19 patients being hospitalized are unvaccinated, Berry said.
Jefferson County has a higher vaccination rate than Clallam County and residents more commonly follow protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing. That is why case numbers, test positivity and hospitalizations have not been as severe so far in Jefferson compared to Clallam, Berry said.
Due to the significantly high test positivity, case rate, and origin of cases — primarily among unvaccinated residents — masking indoors and getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is extremely important at this point to slow the spread of the virus, Berry said.
“In any indoor space, we really need to have masks on,” Berry said. “The math right now is that if you’re in an indoor space with 20 other people, one of them has COVID.
“That is how much COVID we have in our community. If you don’t know the vaccine status of those folks, if you’re in a mixed vaccinated/unvaccinated space or certainly an unvaccinated space, if you’re indoors and there are other people around, somebody there has COVID.”
Berry urges all residents 12 and older and to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible.
Not a personal choice
“It affects all of us,” she said. “I think there’s been a common misconception that not getting vaccinated is a personal choice, but it affects everyone.
“If you don’t get vaccinated, you can spread to other people, but also you can get very ill.
“When you take up a hospital bed, that’s a hospital bed that someone with a stroke or a heart attack can’t have; someone whose kid got in a car accident can’t have — and that is what we’re experiencing right now.”
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected]