Coronavirus infections again rising in King County. No cause for alarm yet, health officials say

COVID-19 infections are again on the rise in King County as omicron’s more infectious subvariant, BA. 2, continues to spread throughout Washington state — but there’s no cause for alarm yet, according to the county’s top health officer.

The county’s COVID trends have stayed fairly consistent for the past couple months, after the surge of the omicron variant peaked in early to mid-January. Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County’s health officer, said that virus levels were plateauing up until last week.

“There has been a clear change in the trend direction in King County,” Duchin said. “For the first time in awhile now, we’re seeing small but measurable increases in cases.”

Over the past week, the county saw a 42% increase in infections, from 175 to 250 daily cases, according to the county’s COVID data dashboard. While the county’s data dashboard initially also recorded a slight uptick in daily hospitalizations earlier in the week, Public Health — Seattle & King County spokesperson Sharon Bogan said Wednesday night that hospitalizations over the past seven days remain stable without an increasing trend, and that the apparent rise in hospitalizations hadn’t been “verified with medical record review.”

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

During the height of the region’s rise in omicron cases, the county was reporting more than 6,600 daily cases and 60 daily hospitalizations.

COVID deaths, meanwhile, are down about 36% — steadily declining for the past month. Public Health — Seattle & King County spokesperson Gabriel Spitzer added that the county’s hospital capacity has recently increased while COVID numbers were falling, “lessening the impact on the health care system.”

The county’s public health teams are paying “serious attention” to the slight increase, but residents shouldn’t panic at this point, Duchin said.

“I really do want to emphasize ‘small (increases),’ because these numbers are still lower than they’ve been since the delta surge,” he said. ” … We’ve known that future surges of unpredictable severity and duration are to be expected.”

However, statewide cases and hospitalizations are decreasing, state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said during a news briefing Wednesday. Washington is averaging about 439 daily cases and 30 daily hospitalizations, similar to the summer lows before the delta surge last year.

COVID patients account for about 6% of the state’s hospital beds, compared with about 30% in late January. Less than a dozen COVID patients are on ventilators, according to the Washington State Hospital Association. General hospital capacity, however, remains high as patients are admitted for delayed care and influenza cases increase, the hospital association said this week.

“That said, we’re also watching BA. 2 across the country and across the globe,” Shah said. “It’s true that BA.2 has become the dominant strain for COVID-19 positive cases in the state of Washington.”

According to UW Medicine’s virology lab, the largest genomic sequencing lab in the state that’s been tracking COVID levels since the beginning of the pandemic, the region is seeing BA.2 in about 51.4% of COVID samples recently sequenced, said Pavitra Roychoudhury, acting instructor at the UW’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology.

She noted the levels are fairly consistent with national estimates for the United States.

“Since BA. 2 is more transmissible than BA. 1, we’d expect it to replace BA. 1 eventually,” Roychoudhury wrote in an email.

The subvariant, which first emerged in the U.K. in December, appears to be about 30% more transmissible than its original strain — although early data suggests BA.2 infections are more mild, local and national researchers have said.

Still, the subvariant’s increased proportionality doesn’t yet appear to be driving up hospitalization numbers statewide, according to Shah.

While it’s too soon to tell what the significance of recent increases will be, Duchin encouraged the public to continue paying close attention to the county’s COVID trends and keep certain mitigation strategies in mind, including getting vaccinated and boosted.

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday authorized a second COVID booster shot for those 50 and older or certain younger people with severely weakened immune systems if it’s been at least four months since their last vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also later recommended the shot, which means as of Wednesday morning, eligible Washingtonians can receive another booster.

Duchin noted that getting the primary series and the first booster, when eligible, is the “most important” step people can take to protect against severe illness and death.

Also important, he said, are improving indoor air quality, wearing high-quality face masks for people at increased risk of COVID, and testing and isolating if symptoms arise.

“This recent change … is cause for awareness and people need to be reminded that COVID-19 is still with us and still poses a risk to vulnerable people,” Duchin said. “It’s unlikely we’ll see a surge as bad as the recent omicron surge, but it’s really impossible to predict.”

Correction: A previous version of this story reported that daily hospitalizations in King County had seen a slight increase, but Public Health — Seattle & King County later acknowledged that data at the time hadn’t been verified. After data was verified with medical records, the public health department said there hadn’t been an increase in hospitalizations.