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Refrigerated trailer relieves Cowlitz County morgue; COVID-19 vaccines offer protection amid delta

Preparing vaccine

PeaceHealth St. John pharmacist Liz Verbrugge prepares a syringe for injection of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine during the first day of administration in Cowlitz County at the hospital in Longview in December. 

The refrigerated trailer Cowlitz County purchased in early September has provided the morgue with “the relief we were looking for” since it arrived about three weeks ago, Coroner Tim Davidson said Tuesday.

The county commissioners approved the trailer purchase and related emergency declaration Sept. 8 after a surge in COVID-19 deaths overwhelmed morgue and funeral home capacity.

Cowlitz County commissioners OK refrigeration trailer purchase to increase morgue's cold storage

Deaths have slowed, but are still “pushing the limits” of what the trailer and the building can hold, Davidson said. Morgue occupancy has remained fairly steady over the last month in part because it takes families time to work with funeral homes and make plans, he said.

The morgue’s cold storage can normally hold 12 bodies and the trailer can hold 16, for 28 total. As of Tuesday afternoon, the morgue had 26 bodies, Davidson said. The caseload has slowed down to about normal, which includes about three investigations per day plus deaths at the hospital, nursing homes or at hospice, he said.

Davidson said cooperation among his office, the county’s six funeral homes, the hospital and other providers and facilities has been key to manage the surge.

This week, the coroner’s office is moving into its new building, which will be able to hold about 50 bodies.

“It will provide us a new refrigeration unit and take care of all the fears we have of having too many patients here at this time,” Davidson said.

Cowlitz County finances new $5M morgue through state program for better deal

Before the pandemic, the coroner’s office was seeing an increase in cases, in part because of the aging baby boomer population, Davidson previously said. Not all recent deaths are from COVID-19, he said.

Cowlitz County’s seven-day COVID-19 death rate peaked at the end of August, with about 18 deaths per 100,000 people. The most recent complete rate of 12.7 deaths per 100,000 from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 was more than four times the state’s rate of 3.1 deaths per 100,000 for the same week. The state considers the most recent 32 days to be incomplete because of reporting lags.

The county recorded four new COVID-19 deaths Tuesday, with 202 total.

Cowlitz County recorded 60 new confirmed cases, bringing the total to 11,115 confirmed and 1,316 probable cases.

As of Tuesday morning, PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center had 27 COVID-19 inpatients.

Vaccine effectiveness

COVID-19 vaccines provide protection against infection and hospitalization, even throughout the delta variant surge, according to a report the county health department published Tuesday.

The report compares Cowlitz County case rates and regional hospitalization rates by vaccination status and broken down into three age groups.

“COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates increased for all age groups after delta became dominant in the region,” the report states. “Rates among residents who were not vaccinated were much higher than those who were fully vaccinated.”

Washington hospitals see dip in COVID-19 patients, concerns for future remain

Infection rates were four times lower among fully vaccinated Cowlitz County residents 12 to 34 years old and 35 to 64 years old than unvaccinated people in those age groups from May 31 to Sept. 19, according to the report. Fully vaccinated residents 65 years old and older were three times less likely to get COVID-19 during that same time.

COVID-19 hospitalization rates in Southwest Washington — Cowlitz, Clark, Lewis, Pacific, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties — were 13 times lower among fully vaccinated residents 35 to 64 years old, according to the report. People 65 years old and older were seven times less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19.

Of the 139 Cowlitz County residents who died of COVID-19 after Jan. 18, 2021, 19 were fully vaccinated, according to the report.

As of Saturday, 55.4% of Cowlitz County residents had initiated vaccination and 49.9% were fully vaccinated. Statewide, 63.6% of residents had received at least one dose and 58.3% were fully vaccinated as of Saturday.

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