Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick relayed a grim message to the Clark County Council at Wednesday morning’s Clark County Board of Health meeting.
Melnick said the county is in line to see more COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the near future if infection rates don’t start to dip soon.
On Wednesday afternoon, Public Health confirmed 37 new coronavirus cases in Clark County and no new deaths. The county has confirmed 1,090 total COVID-19 cases.
Over the last two weeks, the county is averaging close to 26 new cases per day. It needs to be under nine cases per day to meet the target metrics for Phase 3.
The county had 22 people hospitalized at its two hospitals Wednesday, the most since the virus was first identified in Clark County in March.
Melnick said PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center is serving an unknown number of COVID-19 patients from Cowlitz County, who are included in those numbers, but he is still worried about the rise in cases.
Texas, Florida and other states began to see a rapid increase in cases weeks ago, and are now experiencing dramatic overflow at their hospitals.
“I’m concerned that over the next few weeks and months that if the cases keep going up, we’re going to see stress on our hospital system,” Melnick said.
As of Wednesday, Public Health reported that the county was at 68 percent of its hospital bed capacity, 12 percent below Washington’s target for Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.
The county was dedicating 4.9 percent of its hospital beds to COVID-19 patients, about 5 percent below the state’s desired metric for entering Phase 3.
The county is still about a week away from being reconsidered for Phase 3, after the state paused relaxation of restrictions on July 2. But the current metrics for Clark County don’t indicate the county is ready to enter Phase 3.
The county’s infection rate is at more than double Washington’s target for the rate of newly diagnosed cases per 100,000 population over a two-week period. The target is below 25 newly diagnosed cases per 100,000 population over a two-week period, and Clark County is at 52.
That data is pulled from June 18 through July 1, and Clark County’s daily cases have gone up in the last week, so the infection rate will continue to rise.
Melnick said Clark County is experiencing more than two outbreaks per week at local businesses, another metric the county is failing to meet.
‘Pause’ may be extended
Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said Wednesday that if cases of coronavirus continue to increase statewide, it was unlikely that a current statewide pause for counties looking to advance from their current stage of reopening will be lifted at the end of the initial two-week timeframe.
As of Wednesday, nearly 38,000 people have tested positive for the virus and at least 1,394 have died.
“The rates are going up in most counties in the state, and that is not where we want to be,” Wiesman said during a weekly state update on COVID-19. “And if they continue to go up, moving out of this pause of a phase really doesn’t seem very likely.”
Wiesman said that not only will a continuation of daily increases keep counties paused where they are, officials will have to consider whether they need to roll back reopening in counties by whole phases, or make other changes.
Contact tracing lags
Clark County is far below one of the state’s goals in contact investigation and notification. Because of the recent rapid climb in cases, and also because of on-boarding new staff and transitioning out old staff, the county has only been able to contact 8 percent of confirmed cases by phone or in person within 24 hours of a positive test receipt over the last couple weeks.
That’s significantly below the state’s 80 percent target, and even the 63 percent output the county recorded when it turned in its Phase 3 application on June 26.
Melnick said having new staff in place and trained should raise that number quickly, but he called the 8 percent figure “dismal” on Wednesday.
“I didn’t anticipate it to be that low,” Melnick said. “We’re kind of in a race against the virus.”
Further details sought
Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring told Melnick she wants him to suss out how many Cowlitz County patients are being hospitalized in Clark County, so that it does not impact the county’s ability to move through phases going forward. Melnick agreed to do that.
Quiring also said she wishes the state would judge applications more on hospitalizations than infections.
“I think that metric is extremely important,” Quiring said of hospitalizations. “That should be the substantial metric instead of number of cases.”
Melnick said each metric is important, and explained that infection rates are a way to prepare for incoming hospitalizations. He said he’s not “going out on a limb” by stating that hospitalizations will increase.
“The case counts, it gives you a little bit of lead time,” Melnick said. “If you wait until the hospital numbers go up, you’re already behind the curve.”
County Councilor Gary Medvigy urged residents to listen to health experts and wear masks, which are proven to greatly reduce transmission. County Councilor Julie Olson mentioned the importance of physical distancing and hand-washing.
“Wearing a face mask should not be a political issue,” Olson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.