Health officials urge against gatherings amid COVID-19 fall surge


Health officials statewide have a dire warning ahead of the holiday season of the dangers of private gatherings leading to increased spread of COVID-19, saying that new restrictions may be necessary unless Washingtonians can follow recommendations to stop an apparent acceleration in activity of the disease.

A number of leaders of health agencies at the state and local levels spoke of their concerns over recent trends in COVID-19 transmission during a media briefing Nov. 10. Washington State Health Secretary John Wiesman said there was an “immediate sense of renewed urgency” given an apparent acceleration of a “fall surge” of COVID-19 activity in the state.

On that acceleration, Washington State Health Officer Kathy Lofy provided data showing a steady increase in daily cases since early September that has gone up higher in the past two weeks. Last week, the state saw its greatest single-day increase at cases at close to 1,500.

Lofy said the acceleration in cases was widespread in both Eastern and Western Washington, as well as in age groups across the board, adding that testing numbers have remained flat.

Both sides of the state have also seen hospitalization increases, particularly in Western Washington, Lofy added, which raised concerns about the potential for overwhelming hospitals.

The solution to changing the trajectory of the virus’ spread was in adhering to past recommendations on contact with individuals outside of the household, the health experts present agreed.

“Ideally we should probably all stop socializing for the next several weeks to slow down the disease that’s rapidly spreading through our state,” Lofy remarked, adding at the very least Washingtonians should limit in-person socializing to no more than five individuals outside of the household per week while taking precautions such as mask-wearing and physical distancing.

Lofy warned that unless the state could stop the acceleration of the disease by adhering to current preventative measures and guidelines, “we’ll need to take actions that will hurt our economy, and no one wants to do that again.”

Washington State Department of Health Deputy Secretary for COVID-19 Response Lacy Fehrenbach spoke about the upcoming holidays given that data showed informal gatherings have been a major contributor to the continuing spread of the disease. She said that in Canada there were large increases in cases following that country’s Thanksgiving celebration Oct. 11, something Washington could not afford.

“Any in-person gathering is risky right now,” Fehrenbach said.

Snohomish Health District Health Officer Chris Spitters said the recent case acceleration showed the potential beginning of a surge in the need of hospital care, reinforcing the need for immediate changes in behavior to stop continued growth in disease activity.

“Not after the holidays, not next week, not tomorrow; now,” Spitters said. He added he’s heard from the healthcare system of concerns over current staffing shortages that would be exacerbated with an influx of COVID-19 patients, affecting the ability for individuals to receive care for other health issues while the pandemic continues.

“Holding gatherings is a threat to all … plain and simple, just stop the gatherings,” Spitters remarked, saying that any new mandatory restrictions would be far more difficult than taking the current recommended precautions.

“COVID-19 is a viral wildfire, and we are the fuel,” Public Health — Seattle & King County Director Jeff Duchin remarked. “At this time we all need to cut back on non-essential activities and contact with others outside the home.”

Health officials acknowledged the collective fatigue of Washingtonians under the threat of COVID-19, with statewide restrictions having been in place for more than seven months now.

“The exhaustion that we’re all feeling in Washington State is incredibly real right now,” Department of Health Behavioral Health Strike Team co-lead Kira Mauseth said. “People are just totally overwhelmed, and tired.”

Mauseth said that fatigue could lead to more impulsive decisions that could negatively affect health and safety. The desire to have holidays surrounded by loved ones may lead to individuals downplaying the risks of gatherings, she added, stressing that Washingtonians needed to keep the social distance to combat continued growth of disease activity.

“It’s exceptionally hard, but the diligence will pay off,” Mauseth said.

With recent news of the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine, Department of Health Acting Assistant Secretary for Prevention and Community Health Michele Roberts said there was hope for a safe and effective vaccine available by the end of the year.

Though the state has been preparing for an eventual vaccine, Roberts said that estimates varied on how many doses of a vaccine would be available in Washington, and the federal government has not provided updates on allocation or timing, the latter of which depended on when a manufacturer submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s Chief of Staff David Postman said there was nothing stopping the governor from calling for more restrictions, but that Inslee believed the recommendations given by health officials during the briefing would be adequate to make the needed change in the disease’s trajectory.

“There is a lot that each person in this state can do to help protect themselves, protect their families and protect their communities,” Postman said, “and frankly that is so much better for everybody than trying to shut down the economy.”


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