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Although COVID case counts in Kittitas County have plateaued for the most part, vaccination rates have also followed the same trend, causing the Kittitas County Public Health Department to look at new ways to educate residents about the benefits to getting vaccinated, especially as new variants of the disease begin to circulate throughout the country.

“Certainly, our county numbers have improved,” Kittitas County Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson said of the recent metrics. “We’re getting about an average of two cases per day, and our incident rate is below 60 cases per 100,000 people for 14 days.

That’s a phenomenally low number, lower than we’ve had since March of last year.”

Larson said a large part of the success seen in county metrics is due to having almost half of the county population over age 16 vaccinated. He said another factor of the current numbers most likely has to do with Central Washington University students being gone for the summer. Although he said the total case number for the county as of Tuesday was 3,440, he said that isn’t necessarily an accurate percentage count of the total number of residents that have had the disease.

“Not everyone with COVID-19 gets tested,” he said. “We know it’s above that particular number, but our numbers are going down.”

Although he said hospital capacity due to the disease has had spikes over the last few months, Larson said the age demographics for those hospitalized are trending younger than what the county initially saw at the onset of the pandemic.

“Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve had very few people in the hospital (for COVID),” he said. “They’ve all been younger, and they’ve all been unvaccinated. But the numbers are lower, and that’s really reassuring to me that currently our cases in the county are pretty low. Our hospital system locally is not overwhelmed with COVID patients.”

With the older age demographic having the highest vaccination rate in the state, he said that metric explains why more younger individuals are being seen for the disease.

“We’re still getting people hospitalized for COVID-19, but it’s the 50-plus percent of people who are not fully vaccinated that are ending up in the hospital,” he said. “The unvaccinated is ending up in the hospital, similar to what we’re seeing in Grant, Chelan, Okanogan, and Douglas counties. All similar numbers.”

Despite the metrics staying relatively stable, Larson said the county has seen some daily upticks in numbers at times and has also seen approximately 10 cases of vaccine breakthrough. With any vaccine, he said there is small chance of this happening, and that the symptoms are less severe than those who contract COVID without a vaccination to protect them from it.

“(We’ve had) certainly less than the 5% you would expect from a vaccine that’s 95% effective,” he said. “Even a vaccine that’s 95% effective, you’d still expect five cases out of 100 to have some breakthrough. We’re below that.”

Larson said the vaccine breakthrough cases are being sequenced and said there are multiple variants of the disease currently circulating in the county, including the Alpha variant originally detected in the United Kingdom, the Gamma variant first detected in Brazil, as well as a few cases of the Delta variant.

“The Delta variant is what we’re seeing increases in nationwide, and also in the state,” Larson said. “From two weeks ago to last week, we went from 17% Delta to 27% Delta, so it’s definitely increasing. We have places like Walla Walla County who has a huge outbreak currently, and their vaccination rate is higher than ours, so I expect we’ll start seeing Delta variant in the unvaccinated, including kids.”

With the increase of the Delta variant throughout the state, Larson said he is concerned about the potential for breakthrough cases to potentially be related to the new variants of the virus, although he said there isn’t enough data to answer that question at this point.

“I am cautiously optimistic that none of these vaccine breakthroughs in our county have ended up in the hospital, but we have had people in the United States as a whole who have had vaccine breakthrough and have passed away,” he said.

PLATEAU IN VACCINATION NUMBERS

Larson said the rate of vaccination uptake, or new patients choosing to become vaccinated has basically dropped off in Kittitas County, stalling progress on protecting more of the population against the disease, especially as new variants make their way to the county.

“We’re working on ways to address that,” he said. “We may have a mobile clinic happening over the Labor Day holiday, and we’re going to be doing some outreach clinics at a few churches and some other places to try and increase our rate.”

As Central Washington University students begin to return in the fall, Larson said the requirement for them to be either fully vaccinated or have a medical waiver will help curb increases seen last fall upon their return.

“Moving towards a fully vaccinated campus does not mean 100% of the people on the Central campus will be vaccinated, but it does mean 100% of people will either be vaccinated or have a waiver,” he said. “That will really be helpful in our county as a large proportion of our cases occurred in that 19-to-29 age range.”

With approximately half of adults in the county over 16 not being vaccinated, Larson said he is concerned that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending that people who are vaccinated not wear a mask, as there is no way of determining whether unvaccinated individuals are wearing masks within the community.

“If the data from what’s happening in Walla Walla comes back that what they’re seeing is the Delta variant and that’s why they have the big outbreak currently, it’s quite possible that there will be isolated pockets similar to what’s currently happening in Los Angeles where they are recommending people to put their masks back on,” he said. “That’s just another mitigating strategy along with being vaccinated that can lower our risk. Right now we’re not seeing that in Washington State, but I would keep a close watch on what’s happening in Walla Walla County.”

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!

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