Grays Harbor Public Health & Social Services addressed vaccinations, testing data and the recent COVID-19 related deaths in a press briefing Thursday morning. On Thursday, four deaths were added to the total COVID-related number of deaths, bringing the total to 21. On Friday, the county reported its largest one-day total of new cases — 69 — likely due in part to a spike at the Stafford Creek prison. And officials said they are concerned about the high rate of positive tests — 11.7 percent — after a weekend of free testing.
On the forefront of public discourse, public health officials confirmed that vaccinations are being dispersed in the state of Washington and the county is set to receive a batch of 975 doses to be distributed to health workers and first responders in the first phase (Phase 1A) of the roll-0ut.
That amount could increase as additional vaccines become available. While the 975 vaccinations the county is set to receive is the Pfizer vaccine, competitor Moderna’s vaccine is currently awaiting final approval from the Federal Drug Administration as of Thursday morning.
County health officials said the amount of vaccine doses the county receives is dependent on how many emergency use authorizations the county is granted and the developments of additional vaccines to be approved. If approved, the county will also receive Moderna vaccine doses by the end of the year.
The county plans to have Phase 1A completed within the next three to four weeks, depending on the number of vaccines received, and hopes to have the general public vaccinated by the summer.
Public Health Incident Commander Chief Leonard Johnson stated that the vaccine, which is a two-dose process, “can create flu-like symptoms” over the subsequent 48 hours and that public health is working with both local vaccination facilities — Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen and Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma — to ensure staff faces as little impact as possible.
Public Health Officer Dr. John Bausher recommended continuing to take transmission mitigation measures after being vaccinated.
“(Mask wearing) is always going to be encouraged. Until we have enough people vaccinated, I don’t think that is going to change,” he said. “Even though you are vaccinated, you should be wearing your mask until we reach a significant number of people that are vaccinated. I don’t see that we are going to change that policy immediately. It just would not fly well.”
Four more deaths reported
Public Health reported on Tuesday that four cases have been added to the total of COVID-related deaths in the county, bringing the total to 21.
According to Public Health Epidemiologist Krista Morris, one of the deaths occurred in late November, one on Dec. 4 and two on Dec. 10.
The four deaths included the recent passing of a Stafford Creek inmate, which occurred on Dec. 10 according to the State Department of Corrections.
Public Health stated the delay in the reporting of the deaths was due to the time it takes for the department to accurately identify if the deaths are COVID-19 related and a discrepancy between state and county reporting.
“The state gives no time frame on death reporting,” Johnson said. “They’re going to update those numbers when they update those numbers. … We are still spending and taking careful time to look at those cases and verify whether or not they were COVID related.”
Morris added that the department has had to come up with a “new process” to classify deaths as COVID-related due to an anticipated change in regulations “on sharing of death certificates from the Vital Records department.”
“That change is to take place in less than a month,” Morris said. “So we had to find another way to obtain those.”
The deaths were the first COVID-related deaths in the county since Nov. 22.
As of Thursday, Stafford Creek Corrections Center, which has seen a substantial rise in cases this month, reported 374 inmate confirmed cases with one death and 32 staff confirmed cases with zero deaths.
On Friday, 69 new cases were reported in Grays Harbor County. That’s as of just before midnight Thursday and it’s a record-high as COVID cases continue to mount. The latest five days of reporting have accounted for 260 cases, an average of 52 per day. The county doesn’t attempt to explain the spike, but it seems likely that it’s affected by an outbreak at the Stafford Creek prison, which now reports a total of 374 cases. The facility had just four cases before a spike hit in late November.
Active cases on Friday broke 300 for the first time with 336.
No new deaths were reported on Friday as the death count remains at 21.
The total case count for the county now sits at 1,611.
For Pacific County, 327 confirmed cases were reported as of Thursday with 165 probable cases potentially adding to that count in the coming days (for a total of 492 cases).
The Pacific County COVID-19 Resources website reports 16 hospitalizations and three deaths as of Thursday.
Pacific County has not has a confirmed COVID-related death since Aug. 25.
In their Thursday briefing, GH public health officials confirmed that antigen testing results are now being included on the state Department of Health website as “probable ” cases and provided some clarification.
“Antigen testing is testing for the protein code of the virus. It’s a different part of the virus that is looked for in these tests,” said Bausher, who explained antigen testing has a quicker turnaround time related to PCR testing, which tests for the messenger RNA of the virus.
Bausher added that the department looks for “sensitivity and specificity” in each of the two types of COVID-19 test types. He said that while the specificity of antigen testing “is very good,” he added that its sensitivity is not optimal, but is improving.
This week, the state began reporting “confirmed” cases, which are positive results using a PCR test, and “probable” cases, which are from antigen tests.
Only PCR tests were used at the recent free testing site at Olympic Stadium Dec. 12-13 in Hoquiam.
According to Johnson, the data received from that testing site revealed some startling information.
“It raised a little bit of a red flag for us,” he said, noting a jump in the positivity rate of those tested.
Over the two days of testing at the site, 324 people were tested with approximately 95-97% of those tested being residents of Grays Harbor County.
A total of 38 positive tests were recorded for a positivity rate of 11.7%, well above the state’s recommended rate of less than two percent.
Johnson implied that the timing of the event, which was exactly two weeks after Thanksgiving, could help explain the increased positivity rate.
“We can’t sit here and say that is exactly what caused these people to get it, but it is an interesting indicator that within that 14 day window we ran that many people through a testing site and we still see that high a positivity rate,” he said. “That’s still very concerning to us that the rate of COVID-19 is that high in the county.”
Later in the briefing, Bausher asked the public to continue to practice mitigation in every way possible.
“Again, we ask the public to adhere to the guidelines. We know its difficult, but with this disease, the only vector is ourselves,” he said. “We are the ones that cause the disease to spread. It’s our behavior. Whatever we can do to mitigate that will have a huge impact on our medical facilities and our capabilities facing not only handling this problem, but all other problems we face on a daily basis.”