The record levels of coronavirus infection and hospitalization that have surged since early to mid-July appear to be flattening — though at a dangerous level, Washington state health officials said Wednesday.
The state continues to see its highest rates yet of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, again heightening the pleas for increased vaccinations and widespread masking. But the leveling of the epidemiological curves is a welcome sight after the highly contagious delta variant raged across the country this summer.
As of last week, the state was seeing a seven-day average of about 180 new hospitalizations per day, compared to an average of about 195 hospital admissions per day at the end of August, state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said Wednesday.
"We're not sure this is going to (continue to) go in a downward direction now … but it is the first good piece of info we've had that we're starting to see some downward trend," Lindquist said.
While the new numbers are encouraging, he said he would be "very cautious" about getting hopes up. "We are not over this pandemic at all," Lindquist added.
Even though infections and hospitalizations are beginning to plateau, they are at high levels. In early July, before the most recent surge, the state was averaging about 30 new hospitalizations and 350 new cases per day. As of last week, epidemiologists and health officials were counting an average of about 3,000 new cases per day.
Deaths, which had shown a "mild" increase recently, are not as high as they had been in previous surges, Lindquist said.
Vaccinations are continuing to increase across the state, said Michele Roberts, the state's acting assistant secretary of prevention and community health.
As of Wednesday, more than 4.9 million people in Washington have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, reflecting more than 75% of the state's eligible population, Roberts said. About 68% of the state's eligible population is fully vaccinated.
"We're definitely seeing an increase of rates over the last few weeks," she said. "... It's time, though, for the 1.6 million others who haven't been vaccinated yet to head to the vaccine locator (website) and make an appointment to get vaccinated today."
The state's hospitals, meanwhile, are still struggling with capacity and staffing shortages. As of Wednesday, there were 1,592 COVID-19 patients in Washington hospitals — "roughly the equivalent of four Harborview Medical Centers," said Dr. Steve Mitchell, medical director of Harborview's emergency department. The number has decreased slightly since the beginning of the week, when hospital leaders reported more than 1,600 COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the state.
Still, Mitchell said, hospitals, including those in Seattle, the Tri-Cities, Wenatchee, Everett and Vancouver, are "going to incredible lengths to care for their patients." Many are turning alternative areas, like classrooms and hallways, into intensive-care units, and reassigning staffers who don't normally work in ICUs to treat patients in need of critical care.
As a result, "patients wait for long periods of time, hoping and waiting for a bed in the emergency department," he said. "Meanwhile, ambulances keep coming and our waiting rooms fill up to levels that none of us who work in the emergency department are comfortable seeing."
Mitchell added, "This is not just my hospital. This is happening in every resource hospital throughout our state. It is a common problem we are all facing."
Statewide, hospital occupancy remains at an overall high. At the beginning of the month, ICUs were about 89% filled, with COVID-19 patients making up about 34%, according to the state's coronavirus data dashboard. On average, hospital occupancy is at about 22%, compared to about 4.5% in early July.
The state is awaiting more information from the federal government about when vaccine boosters may be available, Roberts said. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is meeting this Friday to conduct an independent evaluation on the safety and efficacy of boosters.
After the evaluation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's advisory committee will review the findings and decide on clinical practices, she said.
The state is also waiting to hear more from the FDA and CDC on guidance on vaccines for children 11 years old and younger, who aren't yet eligible for COVID-19 immunizations. The state Department of Health hasn't been given a timeline for any recommendations, Roberts said.
"We're not coming at this from a bureaucratic standpoint," state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah said Wednesday. "We're coming at this from the standpoint of medical health and protection. We're trying to protect as many people from severe illness and death. … Help us protect our health care system."