news 4 days ago

COVID cases double in Tri-Cities in July. But promising trend developing

Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.) — Annette Cary Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

Aug. 01-- Aug. 1--Cases of COVID-19 in Benton and Franklin counties more than doubled from the start of the pandemic in July in Benton and Franklin counties.

And more than three dozen people died of complications of the disease.

But the month ended on a positive note with new cases of COVID-19 possibly having peaked in Benton and Franklin counties, even though numbers of new cases reported daily remain high.

As July 1 dawned the two counties had reported 3,371 confirmed COVID cases since the start of the pandemic and 102 deaths from complications of COVID-19.

Thirty days later, with new cases on July 31 not yet reported, the number of cases in the two counties had roughly doubled to 6,716.

There were 37 additional deaths, and two days with the highest number of deaths reported to date -- on July 14 the Benton Franklin Health District announced six deaths and on July 16 it announced seven deaths.

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But the percentage of people diagnosed who die has declined in the state of Washington, both because testing is now available to more people who may have milder cases of COVID-19 and because doctors are learning more about the coronavirus, according to medical professionals.

Treatments for COVID-19 developed since the coronavirus began being reported in Washington state have helped keep some patients off of ventilators, said Dr. Brian York, an infectious disease specialist for Kadlec Regional Medical Center, on a Kadlec on Call podcast.

They include the antiviral drug Remdesivir and giving patients blood plasma donated by people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies to it.

In other good news the number of newly diagnosed cases appears to be at least plateauing, and possibly even dropping to numbers seen several weeks to a month ago.

Case numbers over time

The local health district reports that in Benton County the two week period that ended July 1 saw 339 cases confirmed per 100,000 people.

That climbed to 433 for the two weeks ending July 11 and then began to drop some. They were down to 391 cases for the two weeks ending July 24.

Cases through the end of the month are still being reported to the health district.

While those Benton County numbers are promising, they still are up significantly following a steady growth in numbers through mid May and June.

Benton County had 67 cases per 100,000 people in the two weeks that ended May 19.

In Franklin County there were 802 cases per 100,000 people in the two weeks ending July 1. That climbed to 868 in the two weeks ending July 10 but was down to 617 in the two weeks that ended July 24.

For the two weeks that ended May 19 it had 106 cases per 100,000 people.

The number of cases remain too high and Dr. Amy Person, the Benton and Franklin county health officer, recommended that schools not reopen for in-person learning in September.

The Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that schools reopen for in-person learning if transmission rates are low.

But that is not the case in Benton and Franklin counties where a low transmission rate would be about 25 or fewer cases per 100,000 people over two weeks.

Although children have a much lower risk of a severe case of COVID-19 than some adults, they still transmit the coronavirus to more vulnerable people, including some parents, grandparents and teachers, according to the local health district.

Preventing new cases

Public health officials are crediting the evident plateauing of cases in Benton and Franklin counties as likely the result of more people wearing masks in public.

As of July 7 businesses in Washington state were required to refuse service to customers not wearing face coverings, or risk a fine or loss of their business license.

And Gov. Jay Inslee agreed to very limited reopening of businesses in Benton and Franklin counties under a modified Phase 1 of his Safe Start program starting July 3 as local officials promised to promote the wearing of face coverings and to conduct weekly surveys of grocery shoppers.

As surveys showed that almost all shoppers had masks, the Washington state Department of Health allowed some additional limited expansion of business and recreation activities starting Saturday, Aug. 1, in the two counties.

That included allowing wineries, breweries and bars to start outdoor service, which previously had been limited to those with kitchens preparing meals since restaurants had already been allowed to start outdoor service.

Staffed swimming pools also were allowed to offer lap swimming and lessons, although outdoor city pools are not expected to be able to staff up quickly enough to open this summer.

New mask survey

The latest mask survey released on Friday showed that for the third consecutive week 98% of people leaving grocery stores had face coverings. For the latest survey, 3,749 shoppers were observed at eight grocery stores.

Public health officials said they expected results from increased wearing of masks to become clear in about two 14-day incubation cycles of COVID-19 or about a month after compliance with mask requirements increased.

Public health officials are urging residents not to become complacent now if they want to expand reopening of businesses, be allowed small gatherings and get students back in classrooms. Now gatherings are limited to household members, with few exceptions.

"I think our biggest frustration, though, is still seeing evidence of a lot of large gatherings where face masks are not being worn and social distancing is not being practiced," said Heather Hill, communicable disease program manager at the Benton Franklin Health District, speaking on a Kadlec on Call podcast.

That increases COVID-19 case counts, keeping more businesses from being allowed to reopen and delaying when students will return to classes, she said.

"It has been a long, exhausting pandemic and the end isn't here," she said.

While there was reason for some cautious optimism in Benton and Franklin counties as July ended, Umatilla County, Ore., just across the state line, has had restrictions reinstated as cases have increased.

Umatilla County regresses

On Thursday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sent county commissioners there a letter saying because of significant growth in the prevalence of COVID-19 in Umatilla County, she was returning it to the baseline phase of the state's Stay Home, Save Lives program as of noon Friday, July 31.

It is the only county in the state now in the baseline phase.

Under the Oregon baseline phase, gyms, playgrounds, malls, pools, entertainment facilities, youth sports, spas, sports courts and personal care businesses such as hair salons must be closed. Restaurants can offer only take-out and delivery.

"I realize this is a dramatic step, but the situation warrants it," she said. The county is expected to remain in the baseline phase for three weeks.

Before the Tri-Cities was allowed some limited reopening, there were reports of residents traveling across the state line to Umatilla County to visit wineries, get haircuts and play golf.

Preliminary results of random door-to-door sampling of households in Hermiston last weekend found that 41 of 471 people tested positive for COVID-19, according to Oregon State University. About 80% who tested positive reported no symptoms of the virus.

"Our results indicate the virus is extremely widespread in Hermiston and more prevalent than previous data had indicated," added Ben Dalziel, assistant professor in the College of Science at OSU and co-director of the project.

OSU estimated that nearly 3,000 of just over 18,000 people in Hermiston are currently infected, after taking into account the sensitivity of the tests and locations where positive results were found.

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