COVID-19 cases continue to climb in the state and Cowlitz County, straining health-care systems and testing capacity, health officials said Wednesday.
Statewide, cases are extremely high and likely an undercount because most at-home tests are not reported, said Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, chief science officer, during a news briefing Wednesday. There are some signs growth is slowing in western Washington, but continues to increase in other parts of the state, he said.
“Overall the situation in the state will continue to be difficult over the coming weeks,” Kwan-Gett said.
Cowlitz County’s two-week case rate has quadrupled since mid-December, reaching its highest levels yet, according to the county health department. On Jan. 10, more than 300 positive tests were reported, double the record of about 150 during the delta surge.
Unlike most of the past year, Cowlitz County’s case rate remains below Washington’s. Dr. Steve Krager, county deputy health officer, said it’s unclear if the county is lagging behind the state and will see cases rise to that same level or if rates will remain lower throughout the surge. The difference may be for various reasons, including a lack of testing availability in the county, he said.
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Cowlitz County recorded 862 new confirmed and 156 new probable cases since Friday, bringing the total to 17,975. The county has recorded 294 COVID-19 deaths.
Wahkiakum County reported seven new cases Tuesday, bringing the total to 287, with 19 potentially active. The county health department considers cases with a positive test result in the last 21 days to be potentially active.
Washington’s seven-day hospitalization rate increased to about 24 new COVID-19 patients per 100,000 people from Jan. 3 to Jan. 9. Cowlitz County reported about 22 patients per 100,000 that same week. PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center had 18 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday morning.
Krager said it’s possible Cowlitz County is beginning to see an uptick in hospitalizations but it is hard to tell right now.
“It’s what we would expect with the way rates have gone,” he said. “Hopefully we can weather this surge and get back to those lower numbers.”
Even though the proportion of people infected with COVID-19 who are hospitalized has fallen, the dramatic rise in cases overall has led to an increase in the patient count, Kwan-Gett said.
Secretary of Health Umair Shah said the length of stay for many patients is shorter than before and patients are less severely ill on average, but hospitals are still very full and strained. About 80% of COVID-19 patients in the hospital are unvaccinated, he said.
COVID-19 deaths have not increased but may be flattening after decreasing over the last few months, Kwan-Gett said.
The health officials emphasized the importance of COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots to decrease risk of severe illness and death.
As of Saturday, 53% of eligible Washington residents had received a booster or additional dose. About 25,307 Cowlitz County residents had received an additional dose, which includes boosters or third doses for those who are immunocompromised and didn’t develop adequate immunity with the two-dose series.
About 59.3% of Cowlitz County residents had initiated vaccination and 54% were fully vaccinated as of Saturday. Statewide, 69.2% of the residents had initiated vaccination and 63.2% were fully vaccinated.
To help address a testing shortage, the state Department of Health is launching a website in the next few days for residents to order free at-home COVID-19 tests. The state ordered about 5.5 million COVID-19 tests, with 3.5 million to send to residents, officials said earlier this month.
Each household will be able to order one kit containing four or five tests, said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID response. The state is expecting to serve 350,000 households in the first week and more tests will be available as supply allows, she said.
People with limited English or who don’t have internet will be able to order their kits through the state’s COVID hotline, 1-800-525-0127.
Households also can order free at-home tests from the federal government’s website, www.covidtests.gov.
“These efforts are about providing a public resource during a critical moment and making it easier for people to find tests,” Fehrenbach said. “Home tests in particular are a key component of your medical kit at home and something we want you to have on hand before you need them. We also want to lift the burden off of our emergency departments right now so critical care can go to people who really need it.”