Clark County continues to struggle with low COVID-19 testing rates, as hospitalizations for people with COVID-like illnesses have begun to rise in the county and state.
At Wednesday’s Clark County Board of Health meeting, Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said that both county hospitals are in the red for certain supplies needed to collect specimens for COVID-19 testing. Hospitals remain in the green for census capacity.
While emergency department visits across the state and county are decreasing, local hospitals and emergency departments are beginning to see an increasing number of patients exhibiting fever or chills, shortness of breath, coughs and difficulty breathing, which are considered COVID-19-like illness.
A report from the Washington Department of Health showed that 254 people in Washington were hospitalized with these coronavirus-like symptoms last week.
“It’s kind of like the calm before the storm,” Melnick told the Board of Health.
Last week, The Columbian reported on the scarcity around swabs, viral transport media and personal protection equipment that has hampered Clark County’s ability to test during the pandemic. The county announced four new cases Wednesday: women in their 20s, 40s, 50s and 90s, who are all recovering at home.
There are 20 confirmed cases in the county and four deaths. Public Health knows about 350 negative tests, which means the county has received test results for 370 people. The department of health data can be helpful for hospitals and Public Health in preparation for a surge of patients, but Melnick cautioned the statistics are “like circumstantial evidence.”
The stats could include patients later found to not have COVID-19, and they can miss patients who do have COVID-19, but don’t visit the hospital for treatment.
According to the Seattle Times, there were 61 hospitalizations for COVID-19-like illness the last week of February. The week after there were 126, and the following week saw 229 hospitalizations.
Last week, emergency departments in 59 percent of Washington counties saw an increased number of visits for COVID-19-like illness. In the same time period, hospitals in 41 percent of Washington counties saw an increased number of hospitalizations for COVID-19-like illness. Clark County fell into both categories.
Clark County has seen increases in both areas over the last couple of weeks. While it’s normal to see more fevers, chills and respiratory issues during February and March, Clark County’s emergency department visits and hospitalizations for these symptoms have increased compared to last year.
The weekly percentage of visits with COVID-19-like illness at Clark County’s two emergency departments was above 2 percent for week 12, and just under 2 percent for week 13, the current week, compared with last year, where the peak of these visits was around 0.5 percent.
The weekly percentage of visits with COVID-19-like illness that require hospitalizations was higher than 2.75 percent for week 12, and just above 1.75 percent for week 13. Melnick said it’s too early to interpret what the decrease in week 13 means now. Hospitalizations could continue to rise in the coming weeks.
“You can see something very different is happening here,” Melnick said.
These significant increases come amid testing issues in Clark County. Last week, all eight Clark County mayors sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee asking him for more state support with testing supplies — the Clark County Council also sent a letter. The state has been low on testing supplies itself, and is trying to procure more from the federal government, state Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist told The Columbian last week.
Clark County was seeking more than 50,000 testing supplies and personal protection equipment. Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency Director Dave Fuller told the Board of Health that they haven’t gotten a tenth of that request from the state.
An email on Monday from Clark County’s Joint Information Center stated the county had received a “limited amount” of gowns (one size), masks and gloves.
“The personal protective equipment is a challenge for us right now, and a challenge throughout the state,” Fuller said. “We’re all on a global level competing for the same supplies.”
CRESA and other places have started taking donations for supplies and protective equipment. The county was able to obtain some swabs from the county morgue, Melnick said, and some veterinarians are pitching in viral transport media and swabs.
Melnick said he wishes the federal government had been more prepared for testing from the jump. Even though states and counties are behind, testing will still play a critical role in the future.
“One of the problems with inadequate testing is that we are flying blind in terms of what’s happening in the community,” Melnick said.