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News / Health / Health Wire

Summer COVID surge approaches in Seattle area as travel season begins

In Washington, omicron subvariant JN.1, the winter’s dominant strain, is still the most common

By Elise Takahama, The Seattle Times
Published: June 17, 2024, 10:20am

A summer COVID-19 surge is on its way through Seattle and the region.

Infection rates and emergency department visits in King County have been rising since the end of April, causing some concern among doctors and public health officials as travel season picks up and people begin gathering more frequently.

“This is the time when people should start taking precautions,” said Dr. Eric Chow, King County’s chief of communicable diseases. “I don’t know how high this [peak] is going to be, when it’s going to peak, but taking precautions now is the best way for people to be able to mitigate the complications related to COVID.”

King County’s virus-related emergency department visits hit a new low the week ending April 27, when only about 0.5 percent of visits involved a COVID diagnosis. As of last week, COVID patients made up about 1.5 percent of hospital emergency visits.

Levels are still below the county’s transmission alert threshold, which is when COVID patients reflect at least 3 percent of emergency department visits. When the county hits that threshold, it’s a signal that community transmission is more substantial and poses a greater risk of causing severe infection or death.

But because fewer people are testing themselves for COVID and emergency department data generally lags behind waves of infection, Chow noted there’s “probably a lot more community transmission that’s happening that’s not fully captured in the data here.”

State COVID emergency department visits have also gradually increased since the end of April, though at a slightly slower rate — jumping from about 0.5 percent to 1 percent of total emergency department visits. Statewide death rates have remained low for months, though more than 400 people in Washington have died from the virus since January.

Infectious-disease experts in Seattle and other parts of the country are also keeping an eye on the ever-growing list of variants that continue to battle for dominance and drive bumps in cases and hospitalizations.

In Washington, omicron subvariant JN.1, the winter’s dominant strain, is still the most common, responsible for about 40 percent of cases. Other omicron subvariants, including JN.1.11.1, JN.1.7 and KP.1.1, each make up about 20 percent of cases here, according to the state Department of Health’s respiratory disease dashboard.

Nationally, KP.2 and KP.3 have also begun to make up a greater proportion of infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus’s ability to mutate and evolve remains strong, which is why public health officials are again urging people to stay up to date with COVID vaccinations.

“COVID is behaving just as it has throughout the pandemic,” Chow said. That means, he said, “more variants [are] trying to evolve and find ways to evade our existing immunity.”

Vaccination rates, federal funding drops

In King County, vaccination rates have fallen since last October, after the most recently updated shot became available. Statewide, just 19 percent of Washingtonians are up to date with their COVID vaccinations, although nearly 70 percent have been vaccinated with their full primary series.

Chow expressed disappointment in decreases in federal funding since the height of the pandemic and acknowledged his department doesn’t have the same capacity it once did to ensure comprehensive access to vaccines and testing. Public Health — Seattle & King County’s longtime mass COVID vaccination clinic in Kent and drive-thru site at Snoqualmie Valley Hospital, for example, both closed at the end of March.

“With the available resources we have, including some limited vaccine clinics, we’ve tried to focus on communities who have the least amount of access, trying to bridge that gap,” Chow said. “But it is a huge concern of mine.”

The health department noted many community health centers, most pharmacies and other health care providers can still offer COVID vaccinations. More information about where to find a site is available at vaccines.gov.

The CDC recommends an updated vaccine shot for everyone 6 months and older. Those 65 and older should get two shots, as long as four months have passed since their first, according to the CDC.

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Another update on COVID vaccines will likely come later this year, as scientists tackle ways to keep Americans safe during the upcoming season. The newest shot, recommended by the FDA last week, will target a variant of JN.1.

But before those shots become available, public health officials are pushing people to get the most updated immunizations already on the market. Take those precautions before heading off on vacation, and consider wearing a mask while in airports or on planes, Chow said.

For those at high risk of severe infection, he also recommended checking in with a health care provider about ways to stay safe while traveling. He urged COVID patients eligible for an antiviral treatment to seek that option early in their diagnosis to help protect them from hospitalization or death.

“We’re excited that people now have the ability to travel,” he said. “But this poses a new risk that we didn’t see at the same degree during the height of the pandemic.”

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