A bad month for COVID-19 infections ended on key in Cowlitz County Tuesday, with officials reporting another 11 new cases to bring the June total to 115 and the county’s lead health official hoping the surge is “a wake-up call.”
The increase seems due to multiple factors, including transmission within households, from all kinds of workplaces and some social gatherings, and it “clearly seems to be associated with re-opening” the economy, Dr. Steve Krager, county deputy health officer, said Tuesday.
June accounted for 61% of the 188 cases recorded in Cowlitz County since the pandemic began. And the surge overlaps with the period that began when the county qualified for Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan on May 23.
However, Krager said he isn’t sure if the increase is directly tied to businesses reopening, because, for example, it doesn’t seem like large groups of people are being exposed at a restaurants or retail shops. The increase may be tied to people becoming less cautious, he said.
“If anything, we need to be more cautious as we re-open,” Krager said. “Businesses and individuals need to be more diligent about maintaining distancing and wearing masks indoors. We still need to be limiting the number of people we have contact with outside our household.”
No known cases are connected to graduations or large gatherings in the past month, Krager said.
The county has reported 19 new cases this week alone, and officials are fretting about the possible spread of infections by an upcoming, unauthorized Independence Day event at Lake Sacajawea this weekend. Krager said in general, large gatherings aren’t a good idea, especially with cases increasing.
“I understand why people want to do things,” he said. “I’m happy it’s outdoors, but I would hope people take the risk seriously of attending a large event at this point in the pandemic. I encourage people to wear masks, distance from others outside their households and be safe.”
The county’s application to enter Phase 3 of the governor’s recovery plan is on hold due to the June boost in infections.
Krager said he’s currently focusing on addressing the increase in cases, and what happens next depends on those results.
“Are we going to stem this again or is it going to continue increasing and (cause) more drastic measures to come into place? I’m not sure what’s that going to look like,” he said. “I would hope the general public sees this as a little wake up call. This is a serious issue, a serious concern and a serious risk for a lot of people.”
Most individuals who test positive for COVID-19 in Cowlitz County have mild to moderate symptoms, Krager said. About The rate of 10% to 20% show no symptoms, he said. At the start of the pandemic, only people with symptoms were tested, but now the Department of Health recommends all close contacts be tested, as well as people with symptoms.
Krager said people who believe they may have been exposed to the virus should still self-isolate for several days even after testing negatively. It can take two to 14 days for symptoms to appear, so a person tested right after exposure may get sick later and expose others to the virus, Krager said.
Two Cowlitz virus patients are currently hospitalized outside of the county, according to the Cowlitz COVID-19 Incident Management Team website. As of Friday, 74 of the cases are considered recovered. The county has reported no virus-related deaths.
The county’s boost in cases appears to be driven by infections of younger people. Over the past month, infections among people 39 and younger increased from about 40% to 51% of the county’s total.
Krager said in general, younger people are less likely to have severe illness with COVID-19, but the risk is not zero, and they can transmit the disease to vulnerable people, he said.
“While the risk to an individual young person may be low, there is a significant risk of passing that infection (even unknowingly) to others at high risk of severe illness,” Krager said. “ ‘We are all in this together’ is still true. The actions we take have consequences for the entire community around us.”
Infections are increasing regionally as well as nationwide, Krager said. Clark and Lewis counties have both reported a recent rise in cases.
Lewis County’s COVID-19 caseload totaled 72 as of Tuesday. Since moving to Phase 3 on June 19, the county has reported 23 new cases, a nearly one-third increase, according the the health department.
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