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Fewer COVID-19 cases has Pierce County ‘cautiously optimistic’

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is “cautiously optimistic” about the dropping daily COVID-19 case counts, communicable disease director Nigel Turner told the Board of Health recently.

The 14-day case rate per 100,000 people was 97.5 on Friday. Two weeks ago, that number was 138.6.

There are tumbling numbers in other metrics, like a lower positivity rate in testing..

Positive test rates have been slowly decreasing since July 25 when Pierce County reached it’s all-time weekly high will 7.7 percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive. The most recent data from TPCHD shows Aug. 2-8 with a positivity rate of 5.5 percent.

“This is probably an overestimate as we don’t get all the negative tests reported through to us,” Turner said in a Wednesday meeting of the Board of Health.

There also have been improvements in turn-around times at laboratories, Turner told the board. Since the second week of July, Pierce County has averaged more than 1,200 COVID-19 tests a day, a health department blog post said.

Median time from receiving a test to the health department being notified in Pierce County is two days. This is a drop from early July when the average time was three days, according to data provided by TPCHD spokesperson Dale Phelps.

Turner said he still is concerned about an increase in cases in the 70 to 79 age group. He pointed out that age group tends to have a worse outcome when diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Earlier this week, 70-79 year-olds made up 5.6 percent of reported COVID-19 cases, according to TPCHD. That age group makes up 6.5 percent of Pierce County’s population.

“The number of cases in that age group increased by about 6-10 fold since earlier in the summer,” the health department reported in early August.

The percentage of hospital beds occupied daily by COVID-19 patients has fluctuated in August from 3.9 percent to 6.5 percent.

“The overall number of hospitalizations – which is something we monitor carefully – has increased slightly but remains below the target level of 10 percent,” Turner told the board.

What’s to come?

With colder months looming, the impact of adding the seasonal flu to the pandemic could be disastrous for the health care system.

Director of Health Dr. Anthony Chen said everyone needs to get the flu shot when it becomes available.

“It is going to be so important that we try to reduce the number of people who have influenza illnesses that look like COVID illness so that we’re not overwhelming our medical providers and emergency rooms,” Chen said on Wednesday.

He said the beginning of the pandemic is a snapshot of what could happen. When testing was restricted to essential workers with COVID-19 symptoms, the positivity rate was around 2 percent in Pierce County, Chen said. That means the other 98 percent were people likely experiencing the flu or other respiratory illnesses.

In the southern hemisphere, the flu season is during the spring and summer. Board member Dr. William Hirota pointed out that they have had a mild flu. Chen attributed their fewer flu cases to following property public health safety measures like: frequently washing hands, wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing.

Turner said the health department is not relying on a mild flu season in the southern hemisphere to prepare for the winter.

“We always hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” Turner said on Wednesday.

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Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County and Puyallup for The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald. She previously worked at The News Journal in Delaware as the crime reporter and interned at The Washington Post.

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