Health officer: Unvaccinated long-term care facility staff spread virus

Unvaccinated staff members of long-term care facilities are the drivers of the now eight COVID-19 outbreaks among such facilities on the North Olympic Peninsula, the region’s public health officer said.

As of Friday, there are seven long-term care facilities in Clallam County and one in Jefferson County experiencing COVID-19 outbreak, that have led to a combined total of 12 deaths among those residents in recent weeks, said Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Jefferson and Clallam counties.

Of the 12 deaths in long-term care facilities, five have been Clallam County residents and seven have been Jefferson County residents, Berry said on Friday.

“We have had occasions where the initial virus introduction might have come in with a visitor, for example, but what allows it to spread so far and wide is unvaccinated staff members,” Berry said.

Clallam County has had a total of 39 residents die from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, while Jefferson County has had 13 residents die. Neither county reported a new death on Friday.

Of the seven outbreaks in Clallam County, the largest continues to be at the Sequim Health & Rehabilitation with a total of 65 cases, but the facility has not confirmed a new case in the last week, which Berry is “cautiously optimistic” about.

The next largest outbreaks in Clallam County report 26 cases and 19 cases, while the remaining facilities all have two to three reported COVID-19 cases as of Friday, Berry said.

The Jefferson County long-term care facility has had 17 cases reported so far, Berry said.

An outbreak is classified as a place that has had two or more documented COVID-19 cases with transmission at the facility.

Berry said she does not name facilities under outbreak investigation if they’re able to contact trace the exposed people unless they confirm it publicly themselves.

Unvaccinated staff

COVID-19 is largely spread through the long-term care facilities by unvaccinated staff members, Berry said.

“In these facilities, they’re already often under-staffed and so an individual positive staff member interacts with numerous patients throughout the facility, and so by the time we know that that one person is positive, they’ve already exposed 30-50 people,” Berry said.

Many long-term care residents on the Peninsula are vaccinated for COVID-19, but due to age and other health conditions, their immune system does not mount a strong enough response the vaccine to fully protect them from the novel coronavirus, Berry said.

About 50 percent of long-term care staff on the Peninsula are vaccinated against COVID-19, and all staff are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 as a result of a previous vaccination mandate by Gov. Jay Inslee requiring all health care and long term care staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Those who are not fully vaccinated have until Oct. 4 with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be fully vaccinated — which is considered to be two weeks after the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — or must have already began the vaccination process for Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, as those require two doses taken three and four weeks apart respectively, Berry said.

“These folks hadn’t been vaccinated yet and the results are disastrous,” Berry said.

New cases

On Friday, Clallam County added 57 new COVID-19 cases, raising its total number of cases to 3,815 since the pandemic began. The county’s case rate was 1,232 cases per 100,000 population for the last two weeks as of Friday, according to county public health data.

Jefferson County added eight new confirmed cases on Friday, raising its total number of cases to 914 since the pandemic began.

Jefferson County calculates its case rate weekly, and the new case rate will be reported Monday.

Officials do not update COVID-19 data on the weekends and right now, most of public health official’s time of the weekend are focused on outbreak suppression, Berry said.

While case rates are starting plateau and slow in both counties, the rates are still extremely high and post a high risk to the community, but the behaviors of residents following public health restrictions and guidance such as mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings, as well as the effects of the restriction on indoor dining being vaccinated patrons only seem to be showing, Berry said.

“It’s still a large amount, but it’s certainly improving,” Berry said. “What seems to be driving this plateau is the changes of people’s behaviors and using common sense methods that are reducing transmission.”