20-plus people infected with COVID were at WA State Fair during first 2 weeks, officials say

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Story updated to include fair attendance totals, released Friday.

Nearly two weeks after the start of the Washington State Fair, there are a number of COVID-19 contact tracing investigations involving fair workers and local people who attended the event.

Karen Irwin, COVID-19 communications lead for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, told The News Tribune in response to questions on Thursday, “We are investigating more than 20 cases among Pierce County residents who attended or worked at the fair during their contagious or exposure period.”

When asked for context, Nigel Turner, director of the communicable disease division for the department, told The News Tribune in a statement, “One case of COVID-19 is too many. This virus is a preventable disease, and yet we are still seeing high cases across our community. We appreciate the many steps our partners at the fair are taking to lower the risk for visitors and workers, but vaccine remains our best shield against transmission and the severe consequences of COVID.”

Turner also noted, “So far, over 235 vaccines have been given at the fair.

The county this week reached 50 percent of its total population being fully vaccinated. That compares with 56.3 percent of the total statewide population fully vaccinated.

Dr. Anthony Chen, director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, issued a health order ahead of the fair’s opening requiring masks be worn by all in attendance at the fair both indoors and outside, regardless of vaccine status.

The state since has mandated outdoor masking in crowds of 500 or more, also regardless of vaccine status.

County and fair officials announced plans for vaccine distribution as part of the operation’s mitigation efforts, along with testing and offering onsite medical care to help avoid sending non-COVID medical incidents to local hospitals.

Before opening Sept. 3, the annual statewide event was a point of contention among hospital officials, who called events such as the fair a “very bad idea” amid the current tide of COVID-19 cases in Pierce County and the state against a backdrop of Washington hospitals stretched thin.

Since Sunday, 1,388 new cases have been reported in Pierce County. From Sept. 5-11, 2,862 cases were reported.

The highly contagious Delta variant has led to an overload of hospitalizations and staffing shortages throughout the region, and Idaho on Thursday announced it had hit crisis standards of care to ration care in its hospitals.

On Thursday, King County health officials announced a new health order to take effect Oct. 25, requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test in order to dine indoors, see a movie inside a theater or exercise at a gym in that county.

When asked if Pierce County health leaders were considering a similar rule, Irwin told The News Tribune: “Pierce County health leaders are exploring many strategies to encourage more people get vaccinated so we can end the pandemic.”

The state fair does not ask guests for proof of vaccination.

Kejuan Woods, deputy incident commander for COVID-19 response, told the county’s Board of Health during its Wednesday study session, “We continue to work with the fair leadership on a weekly basis. They’ve been very responsive to community and health department’s feedback, and we also have a team providing vaccine at two locations, six days a week.”

A statewide tally of cases so far involving those who attended or worked at the fair was not available Thursday from the state Department of Health, and a DOH representative referred back to TPCHD for case information. Irwin with TPCHD emphasized its numbers represented only Pierce County cases.

The fair so far has had nearly 435,000 attendees, according to Stacy Van Horne, public relations manager for the fair, in an emailed update sent to The News Tribune on Friday.

The fair in the past has attracted about a million visitors each year, and was canceled in 2020 in response to the pandemic.

“We have partnered with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to distribute more than 235 vaccines thus far. We continue to proactively do COVID-19 testing daily for staff and guests,” Van Horne wrote. “Please note, we generally don’t provide attendance numbers until after the fair, but feel it’s important this year, in order to provide context.”

“We are proud to continue welcoming guests back after two years, giving them a place to once again, smile, laugh, eat their favorite Fair food and continue a 121-year-old tradition with their families and friends.”

The fair ends Sept. 26.

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.

The News Tribune Staff writer Angelica Relente contributed to this report.