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Covid updates for today: The myth that coronavirus strains get milder

caption: Clinical assistant Richard Wrangel, center left, collects a nasal swab sample from a hockey fan for a COVID-19 test in the parking lot of the Honda Center before an NHL hockey game between the Anaheim Ducks and the Vancouver Canucks, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Anaheim, Calif.
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Clinical assistant Richard Wrangel, center left, collects a nasal swab sample from a hockey fan for a COVID-19 test in the parking lot of the Honda Center before an NHL hockey game between the Anaheim Ducks and the Vancouver Canucks, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Anaheim, Calif.
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Updated news about the coronavirus pandemic in Seattle and Washington state.

According to data from King County and Washington state departments of health, as of Thursday, January 13, 2021:

  • +4,787 new cases since Wednesday in King County. That's +102% over the last seven days.
  • +52 new hospitalizations since Wednesday in King County. That's a 102% increase over the past seven days.
  • 74% of King County residents are fully vaccinated.
  • 10,143 Covid-19 related deaths across Washington state; 1% death rate since the beginning of the pandemic.

Inslee deploying 100 National Guard to help hospitals, orders pause on non-emergency procedures

Following the lead of Oregon and other states, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that he will deploy 100 members of the National Guard to assist hospitals struggling to respond to a spike in Covid-19 patients due to the highly-contagious omicron variant.

He’s also ordering a month-long pause in non-urgent hospital surgeries and procedures. Inslee had previously said that both steps were under consideration.

Currently, more than 200 people a day are being admitted to Washington hospitals due to Covid-19. That’s up from an average of under 70 just a month ago, according to the state’s data dashboard.

“With already full facilities, the 75% increase in Covid hospitalizations has led hospital leaders and physicians to declare they are in a crisis,” Inslee’s office said in a background memo shared with reporters.

On Thursday, University of Washington Medicine said its hospitals reported they were treating 188 Covid-19 patients — a record high.

In addition to helping hospitals manage an influx of patients, the National Guard members will also set up new Covid-19 test sites outside hospitals in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Richland to help meet intense demand for testing. The additional testing capacity follows recent announcements that FEMA is standing up testing sites in King and Snohomish Counties.

This week, Washington surpassed one million probable and confirmed Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. On average, the state is logging more than 13,000 new cases a day, about four times the number during the peak of the delta-driven wave last fall.

While the omicron variant is now leading to an increase in hospitalizations, so far it has not produced a corresponding spike in deaths, according to state data.

The 100 National Guard personnel assigned to hospitals will help with non-clinical tasks. Specifically, the governor’s office said they’ll be deployed to emergency departments to assist in managing the influx of patients and help “alleviate the crowded and chaotic situation.”

Read more here.

Austin Jenkins, Northwest News Network

'The worst' it's been: Covid hospitalizations reach all-time high in Washington state

Since the highly-infectious omicron variant was discovered in Washington state last month, health officials have warned that a surge in cases could cause hospitals to become severely overwhelmed.

Health care workers say that moment is now here.

“This is the worst situation hospitals in Washington state have been in compared to any prior point during the pandemic,” said Taya Briley, vice president and general counsel for the Washington State Hospital Association during a press conference Thursday morning.

Thursday afternoon, Governor Jay Inslee announced that he would deploy 100 National Guard members to assist four of the state's hospitals and has ordered a pause on non-urgent procedures.

Briley said that Covid hospitalizations, which are currently at a weekly average of about 1,800, have now exceeded a previously recorded high of approximately 1,700 per week in September 2021. An average of 149 Covid patients currently need ventilators — that's up 16% from last week's average of 129 patients, she added.

Briley also cited a 65% increase in Covid-19 cases and an average of 226 new hospitalizations per day over the past week. She said the majority of those hospitalizations have been among patients who aren't vaccinated, have only received a single shot, or haven't gotten a booster.

An average of roughly 13,000 new Covid cases per day have emerged in the past week, according to the latest data published by the state Department of Health. The latest data also projects that daily case counts are on trend to increase to nearly 15,000 per day by the end of this week.

Read more here.

Liz Brazile, KUOW

Viruses don't get progressively less severe as they mutate. That's a myth

Yes, Omicron appears to be milder than previous strains of the coronavirus.

"It's comforting to think there might be some tendency to evolve towards a milder form," says Dr. Ruby Bhattacharya at Harvard Medical School.

But remember Delta? "Delta was about two times as likely to put you in the hospital as alpha, which came before it," Bhattacharya says.

Bhattacharya says there's no guarantee the variant that comes next will be as mild as omicron. It could be the worst one yet, cause the most severe illness.

Why is that?

Well, Bhattacharya says SARS-CoV-2 is spread at the beginning of the infection, even before people know they're sick. And that's when people are infected primarily in the upper respiratory tract.

So to spread to more people, the virus has to become really good at upper respiratory tract infections. And it really doesn't matter what's going on in the lungs. So Bhattacharya says future variants will likely continue to be more infectious in the upper respiratory tract. But in terms of severity, she believes it will be luck of the draw "whether that also makes it more severe or that also makes it less severe."

On the surface, this sounds kind of horrible, right? It suggests the next surge after omicron could be worse than even the delta surge. But there's one factor we need to take into account. There's something else that's changing besides the virus — people's immunity.

More than half of the U.S. population has likely been infected. More than 60% are vaccinated.

Stephen Goldstein at the University of Utah says both of those types of exposures will reduce a person's risk of severe disease in future surges, and thus will end up making any future variant look less severe and less deadly.

Our population has a light level of immunity, which means any virus, even one that is as virulent as delta, would in effect, be less virulent "because the average severity of infections will go down over time."

The hope is, no matter what the virus throws at us, over time, future waves of Covid will be less deadly and less disruptive because our bodies are better able to handle it, not because the virus has changed itself.

—Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR

Four Seattle Public Schools now remote, two others closed

Four Seattle Public Schools have now shifted to remote learning due to the pressures of the omicron variant. Franklin High School, South Shore PK-8 School and Aki Kurose Middle School joined Lowell Elementary School in making the switch to online classes as the tremendous wave of Covid cases thins the ranks of staff and students - due to illness, quarantine or just caution.

Cleveland and Lincoln High Schools are fully closed today due to staffing shortages. At Lincoln, “a surge in sick leave requests from staff this morning” led to the last-minute closure, said district spokesperson Tim Robinson. District sources say those requests were a sick-out in protest of the district’s handling of the omicron surge, and left the district no time to find substitutes.

Many parents, staff and students are calling on the district to move entirely to online learning for the next couple weeks until the omicron surge subsides. That’s not possible, argues the district, without the recommendation of public health officials, given Governor Jay Inslee’s mandate that schools operate in-person this school year. However, the superintendent can close individual schools or move them remote on an emergent, short-term basis due to Covid case loads or staffing shortages.

A student sick-out is planned for Friday in protest of the district’s preparation for - and practices during - omicron, including the lack of N95-level masks for students and unclear protocols regarding school closures. Students are also frustrated about the district’s response to recent gun violence on school property.

Ann Dornfeld, KUOW

The difference between Covid sniffles and Covid diarrhea

The podcast, "In the bubble with Andy Slavitt" had a mind-blowing (to me) explanation of the difference between the symptoms you experience when your immune system fights Covid versus symptoms when Covid fights your body.

Slavitt, Covid health advisor in the Biden administration, was speaking with Dr. Michael Mina of the Harvard School of Public Health.

"Congestion, runny nose, and a fever — those are symptoms of your immune response," Mina said. "Loss of smell, diarrhea, and breathing, of course, those are symptoms of the virus doing damage."

This is a departure from early in the pandemic, when the first symptoms were often loss of smell and taste, symptoms that showed up roughly five days after exposure.

The reason is prior immunity, either through vaccination or infection. This means the body recognizes the virus and attacks it by trying to burn it up with a fever, for example. (Viruses don't like heat.)

—Isolde Raftery, KUOW

Remote learning for some Seattle schools due to so many out because of Covid

Seattle Public Schools has moved an elementary school to remote learning for at least five days due to omicron.

Lowell Elementary on Capitol Hill had 42 percent of students absent Tuesday — and a large percentage of staff out, too.

It’s the first time the district has shifted a school to remote learning since schools fully reopened in September.

But other districts have moved some schools online this week, including four high schools in Lake Washington School District.

And Seattle closed two schools entirely on Monday and Tuesday due to staffing shortages — Franklin High School and Kimball Elementary. Kimball resumed in-person on Thursday (today). Franklin will be in session remotely until next Tuesday (January 18).

On Monday, more than 723 school staff requested substitutes.

But there are not enough subs to go around, and local Covid cases are sky-high.

Lowell Elementary will stay remote until next Thursday, January 20. The school, which primarily serves students of color, had 42 percent of its students out on Tuesday, and many staff members have been out sick.

That switch from in-person learning due to so many staff and students out because of Covid.

—Ann Dornfeld and Paige Browning, KUOW

Eviction moratorium extended another month due to ongoing pandemic

Seattle's new mayor has extended the city's eviction moratorium for another 30 days.

Bruce Harrell said Wednesday that residents and small businesses are now protected from eviction until Valentine's Day, February 14.

And utility shutoffs are on hold until April 15.

This is the seventh extension of most residential eviction moratoriums since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago.

Some landlords say the extended moratorium put more financial pressure on them, and that it should end.

—Kim Malcolm, KUOW

No, there won't be Covid internment camps for those who refuse to be vaccinated

A Washington State Board of Health meeting on Wednesday was targeted by a nationwide misinformation campaign, which is pushing false claims that the meeting would include a vote to force unvaccinated residents into COVID-19 quarantine camps.

That is untrue.

In fact, the board was scheduled to discuss a proposed change to infectious disease policy in relation to HIV.

A communication manager for the board said it had received more than 30,000 public comments related to the false theory ... some of them threatening.

The Associated Press reports the claims erupted across social media, where posts spawned fears of Covid-19 "internment camps."

Activists rallied followers to attend a protest at the Board of Health office in Tumwater today. The Washington State Senate's Republican caucus also tweeted a document fact-checking the false claims.

—Associated Press

Boosters appear to be working

Will we need more? As new coronavirus variants have emerged, concerns also arise as to vaccine effectiveness and and the virus' ability to evade immunity. But real world data appears to be showing that staying up-to-date on vaccines and getting booster shots is working well. Despite breakthrough infections, the vast majority of people who have been vaccinated are staying out of the hospital.

“There's data that initially was generated from Israel, but subsequently from other countries as well, that an additional boost — so a third dose of the vaccine several months after the first two — does provide substantial additional protection,” said Dr. Anna Wald.

Wald is a clinical virologist and professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She also directs the UW Medicine Virology Research Clinic at Harborview Medical Center. Wald recently discussed booster shots in an article on JAMA.

Booster shots are recommended, especially for people who are at higher risk. A fourth vaccine dose, five months after the third shot, is also being recommended by the CDC for people with weakened immune systems. Wald explains that this group often does not produce a significant response to vaccines, therefore, an additional dose could benefit them.

As for everybody else...

Antibodies do appear to wane over time. Booster shots help maintain the immune response. Currently, a third shot of mRNA vaccines is recommended. For those who received a Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine, a booster of an mRNA vaccine is recommended two months after the initial shot.

What about a fourth shot?

Dr. Wald says data is not ready to determine if a fourth shot is needed. But that could change.

"I'm hoping that if we do need more, the product that we are getting will actually be different and offer broader protection, and not just be more of the same," Wald said. "It is also possible that the boosters, a third dose for most people, will actually provide pretty good and long-lasting protection."

—Dyer Oxley, KUOW

Read previous blog entries here.

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