Health officials urge masking as respiratory illness rise

Health officials on the Olympic Peninsula are urging the public to wear masks in public spaces and get updated immunizations as a spike in respiratory illness strains state and local health care systems.

In addition to a rising number of cases of influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus infections (RSV), the number of COVID-19 cases is currently much higher in Jefferson County than at the same time last year, according to state Department of Health.

On Dec. 12, Jefferson County reported a two-week average case rate of 451 per 100,000 population. That’s significantly higher than the 180 reported between Dec. 2-15 last year.

The pandemic’s peak number in Jefferson County was 1,961 cases per 100,000 on Jan. 14 of this year. In Clallam County, during the same time period, the case rate was 2,390.

The most recent count of cases in Clallam County shows a case rate of 190 from Nov. 22 through Dec. 5 and a case rate of 187 from the same time period in 2021. In that same time period in 2022, Jefferson County reported a case rate of 190 compared with 242 in 2021.

Dr. Tom Locke, deputy health officer in Jefferson County, said it was likely experiencing higher numbers than last year due to fewer mitigation efforts.

“They are the cases that are reported,” Locke said of the case recorded by health agencies. “They’re always less than the true number, even though we think that Jefferson County has better reporting than most counties.”

Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, has said health care providers throughout the state are dealing with an increase in COVID-19, influenza and RSV infections.

“It’s really overwhelming our health care systems in our region as a whole and in our state as a whole,” Berry told Jefferson County commissioners on Dec. 12, adding that the greatest challenge is in pediatric care.

“Washington state has a very centralized pediatric system, so we don’t have pediatric hospitals in rural areas like ours,” Berry said.

“We send all of our critically ill children to the Seattle or Tacoma area, and unfortunately all of the state is getting hit at the same time. We’re losing the ability to care for all those very sick kids.”

Berry recommended that people wear masks while in public areas, and get updated immunizations for both COVID-19 and the flu.

The state lifted its general masking requirement for public places in March, but that order was never lifted for health care facilities. Jefferson Healthcare spokesperson Amy Yaley said Wednesday the hospital was still limiting visitation as well as continuing to require masking by staff and visitors.

All 25 of the hospital’s beds were currently filled, Yaley said, with the majority of the patients being treated for respiratory illness.

Yaley also urged people to mask up in public and get updated immunizations, saying that community spread of respiratory diseases was impacting staffing at the hospital.

“It makes a tight situation even tighter,” Yaley said. “Things get delayed and it’s affecting our staff.”

On Dec. 9, the Clallam County Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement recommending the use of well-fitting masks while indoors and urging vaccine updates as communities across the state and country experienced an “unprecedented” surge in respiratory illness.

“In addition to RSV and influenza, new COVID-19 variants are taking hold and immunity from past vaccination is waning for many people who have not yet received an updated booster shot,” the statement said.

“The surge in these viruses is resulting in many illnesses, contributing to rising absenteeism in schools this fall. This impact extends to businesses, workers and families.”

According to Clallam County HHS, there are currently three people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county and one death was reported between Dec. 5-11.

More information was not immediately available from Olympic Medical Center.

Berry said Wednesday that because of the wide availability of at-home COVID-19 tests, the actual number of cases was as much as six times higher than the recorded number.

Berry said at this time last year, many public health requirements such as masking were still in place, which likely limited the spread of the disease within the community.

But Berry noted hospitals are seeing a rise in not only the number of COVID-19 cases but also influenza and RSV as well.

“The big thing that’s hitting the hospitals is not the COVID, it’s the flu and RSV, and there is no vaccine for RSV,” Berry said. “Between all three of those and an already fatigued health care, that’s what’s really getting us into trouble right now.”

Most of the population has been vaccinated, Berry said, but new strains of Covid-19 are more contagious and resistant to previous vaccines.

Similarly, Berry said peak vaccination rates for seasonal flu typically occur in January, but this year’s flu season has come early.

COVID-19 can still be a severe disease for those who haven’t been vaccinated, Berry said, and new strains of COVID were impacting children in higher rates.

On Dec. 14, the Department of Health released an update on the number of COVID-19 cases among children in Washington, and Jefferson and Clallam counties were among the regions with some of the highest numbers of case rates in kids.

DOH tracks the number of child cases using the state’s nine education service districts, and the data released Wednesday showed ESD 114 — which covers the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas — with a case rate of 98.8 between Nov. 19 and Dec. 3, 2022, the third highest in the state.

PDN reported that an infant less than a year old died from RSV in Clallam County within the last month. Berry told Jefferson County commissioners last week that was partly due to the inability to transfer children to care.

Seattle Children’s Hospital and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital were seeing three times their normal peak of pediatric needs in a normal flu season, Berry told commissioners, and waiting rooms and other hospital facilities were filling up.

In addition to masking and staying updated on immunizations, Berry said it was important to stay home when ill and for those with respiratory infections to avoid children and the elderly.