Young people driving another COVID-19 surge in Pierce County, health officials say

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Pierce County is grappling with another COVID-19 case surge as it reverts to Phase 2 and as the larger population becomes eligible for vaccinations.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department director Dr. Anthony Chen said vaccines are a long-term strategy to fight the coronavirus, but masking, social distancing, washing hands and limiting gatherings are the first line of defense.

“There’s no way we can vaccinate our way out of this,” Chen told The News Tribune on Thursday, given the current vaccine supply constraints in the state.

His message echoed what state health officials have warned amid rising cases. Masks, hygiene and social distancing remain important tools for everyone to adopt, state health officials said in their Wednesday briefing. They estimated it would take at minimum 70 percent of the population to be vaccinated before hitting herd immunity.

Pierce County for now is just over 19 percent fully vaccinated, according to the state’s vaccine information listed on the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, lower than surrounding counties in the Puget Sound region.

That number comes with caveats, including data lag in reporting and vaccines administered via the Department of Defense, which are not reported through the Washington Immunization Information System, according to the Governor’s Office.

In numbers provided by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, at least 23,934 doses of vaccines have been administered to more than 14,186 Pierce County residents by the Department of Defense through March 17.

In an April 6 Facebook Live Townhall, the commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing, Col. Erin Staine-Pyne, said about 40 percent of the population of McChord Field has taken the COVID-19 vaccine, The News Tribune reported April 14.

Meanwhile, the countywide case rate has been increasing since mid-March. The county’s 14-day case rate per 100,000, as measured by TPCHD, was at 127.3 March 14, the last dip in that number before it started its climb past 200. Daily case totals have see-sawed between 80 and soared past 200 on select days.

On Thursday the case rate per 100,000 was 210.2, exceeding the Roadmap to Recovery Phase 3 metrics which call for fewer than 200.

The numbers as reported by Pierce County tend to skew lower than the state’s record-keeping for its Roadmap to Recovery metrics, which determine phases for each county.

The numbers differ from those reported for the Roadmap to Recovery metrics, based in part on different points of time in measurement and different case totals. The state also includes some probable cases and cases among people who live at JBLM, according to the health department in its update Thursday.

Inslee announced Monday that Pierce County, along with Cowlitz and Whitman counties will revert to Phase 2 in the state’s Roadmap to Recovery. Phase 2 restricts restaurants, retailers and gyms to 25 percent capacity, down from 50 percent in Phase 3, among other rules.

Chen said he isn’t surprised Pierce County has moved back and feels that it’s necessary to protect residents and businesses from larger outbreaks.

WHO IS GETTING COVID?

Pierce has seen increasing cases since mid-March. Chen is bracing for another big surge after spring break.

“We’ve seen that after any big holiday, we get a bump,” he said.

Chen said school superintendents have told him students are having slumber parties and parties after football games. Cases among young adults are leading, Chen said.

The health department’s COVID-19 data reports about 15 percent of cases are hitting those under the 19 years old; people in their 20s account for 21 percent of reported cases; people in their 30s are 19 percent; and those in their 40s are 15 percent of reported cases. People 50 years old and older account for 30 percent.

According to state Department of Health data, cases for ages 35 and younger made up approximately 64 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pierce County for the first week of March compared to about 74 percent the first week of April.

Dr. Umair Shah, Secretary of Health for the state, said at a Department of Health briefing last week that the sharpest increases statewide are due to younger people, ranging from 10s through the 30s.

“But in many ways, we’re also seeing many age groups increasing, and that is of concern to us,” Shah said.

WHERE IS COVID IMPACTING?

The health department is working with 35 schools, 49 businesses, six churches and seven health care facilities with cases, Chen said. Many of those are not considered “outbreaks” by the health department, which require two or more cases.

Still, the department is seeing increases in cases and outbreaks in some settings.

“We’re starting to see more churches, or religious places of worship, with increased case counts, with outbreaks,” said Kim Steele-Peter, TPCHD public health branch director for communicable diseases.

All the activities that indicate a healthy community — going to school, participating in sports, going to church, hiking with friends — are causing cases to spread, Steele-Peter said.

“All of those things are kind of, in this pandemic, a detriment because those are also ways that we transmit,” she said.

The outbreak data on TPCHD’s website shows 80 businesses with a collective 385 reported cases of the coronavirus. That includes retailers with a combined total of 44 COVID-19 reported cases, child care centers with a combined total of 41 reported cases and shipping-and-delivery companies with a combined total of 38 reported cases, according to the dataset.

Among the listed businesses with outbreaks in the last 28 days, Walmart in Spanaway shows the highest number of COVID-19 reported cases with 30 cases.

Only businesses with 60 or more employees and 10 or more confirmed COVID-19 cases are listed by name on the health department’s page.

In a letter to Inslee and legislators last week, Pierce County leaders argued the county was “not seeing outbreaks in businesses” and that cases were coming from “private and home social gatherings.”

The letter was signed by Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, County Executive Bruce Dammeier, Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County and Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber.

In a statement sent to The News Tribune on Sunday, Chen said the county continues to see “cases and outbreaks in all settings” and that the health department is concerned by the upward trend.

Chen said an increase in cases has left employees and students going into quarantine for two weeks, causing disruptions in income and learning.

The health department does not track the number of staff and students who are required to quarantine, but some school districts, such as Tacoma, share on their websites the number of staff or students that have had to quarantine due to COVID-19. This month so far, more than 20 people have quarantined at Tacoma Public Schools.

The health department lists care facilities with 10 or more COVID-19 cases on its website. Currently, Rainier School in Buckley is the most impacted with 54 cases in the current outbreak within the past 28 days and 92 cumulative cases listed.

VACCINE HESITANCY

Chen said there are people who have questions or concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines, such as religious organizations, minority groups and political groups over the speed at which the vaccines were developed, what’s in the vaccines and overall safety.

The health department has set up community coordinators to reach groups most affected by the coronavirus include Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders, Hispanics and Blacks, and is working with more than 80 groups in vaccine strategies, Chen said.

Vaccine information is available in several languages. Clinics are being set up in churches, community centers and places of employment so individuals can be vaccinated in areas they go regularly.

Chen said last year, there were small camps of people who were either staunchly for or against getting vaccinated, and a large middle group of undecided people. Now, many from the middle are getting the shot because they have seen people they know getting it without repercussions, he said.

Chen has heard misinformation about the vaccines, like side effects including infertility.

“We are all working as hard as we can overcome any barriers and address concerns as we can,” he said

One of the biggest groups the health department has struggled to reach is rural, conservative males, he said. Chen said staff are working to connect with those folks to overcome misinformation and health inequities.

“The point is my job is to take care of 905,000 people and make them healthier, and I need to find a way to get them on board,” Chen said. “Our job is to protect all the people in Pierce County.”

This story was published by The News Tribune.