12 more Tri-City area COVID deaths. Infection rate still climbing

·7 min read

Twelve more people from the Tri-Cities area have died of complications of COVID-19, the youngest a man in his 30s, reported the Benton Franklin Health District.

It was the highest weekly total since 12 deaths also were announced at the end of October.

Across Washington state those dying recently of COVID-19 have almost all been people who had not been fully vaccinated against the disease, said Cassie Sauer, chief executive of the Washington State Hospital Association, at a news briefing last week.

“There’s a lot about this pandemic that we could repair, but these deaths cannot be undone,” she said.

The weekly death report Friday brings the Tri-Cities total so far this month to 17.

In December, 22 people in Benton and Franklin counties died. In November, 17 COVID deaths were reported, down from 80 in October.

Those who died most recently included nine people from Benton County. They were a man in his 30s, a man in his 40s, two women in their 50s, a man and a woman in their 60s, a woman in her 70s, and a man and a woman in their 90s.

The three residents of Franklin County who died were a woman in her 70s and men in their 70s and 80s.

A total of 595 deaths of Tri-Cities area residents has been attributed to complications of COVID since the pandemic began, including 407 from Benton County and 188 from Franklin County.

Local public health officials verify that deaths are due to COVID complications by checking for a positive test result and that a coronavirus infection was named as a primary cause of death on the death certificate.

It can take several weeks for the district to receive and reconcile death information due to the reporting processes of medical facilities and coroner offices and the process of issuing and releasing death certificates.

Statewide, 10,339 residents have died of complications of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the Washington state Department of Health.

COVID breakthrough cases

In 2021 in Benton and Franklin counties, 26 fully vaccinated people died of complications of COVID-19. That’s about 8% of COVID deaths, according to new information from the Benton Franklin Health District.

It also reported breakthrough cases in vaccinated people who were hospitalized for COVID treatment in the two counties, with data available for the year starting about the third week of January.

There were 1,505 COVID patients in Tri-Cities area hospitals, with 153, or about 10%, of them fully vaccinated.

Of the remaining, 1,352 patients, just 4% were partially vaccinated. They had an initial dose of the Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, but not the second dose at the time they were admitted.

Of the total COVID cases in the two counties last year, about 9% were in fully vaccinated people.

Currently 63% of all people in Washington state are fully vaccinated. It’s just under 53% in Benton County and almost 48% in Franklin County.

Tri-Cities COVID cases

New case counts are rising sharply in the Tri-Cities area, as the more infectious omicron variant spreads.

Public health officials said recent analysis of positive test samples collected at the free drive-through COVID testing site in Pasco and the Richland free walk-up testing site showed that about 97% of current cases are the omicron variant.

A screenshot from the Benton Franklin Health District shows the COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the two counties, as calculated for two week periods, has doubled from the previous peak.
A screenshot from the Benton Franklin Health District shows the COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the two counties, as calculated for two week periods, has doubled from the previous peak.

Over the past week, starting with the weekend, an average of 679 new confirmed COVID cases were reported each day.

That’s likely a gross underestimate of new cases, said Dr. Amy Person, health officer for Benton and Franklin Counties, in an interview with the Benton Franklin Community Health Alliance.

Home test kits, with many results not reported to public health officials, are increasingly popular, and community test sites did less testing last week because they were closed or had shortened hours Sunday to help laboratories catch up with a backlog.

Confirmed cases reported over the past week were up 67% from the previous week and almost doubled from the week before that, when an average of 345 new cases were reported each day.

The new case rate over two weeks has more than doubled since that previous peak when the delta variant spiked in the Tri-Cities area in the fall and has increased more than 10-fold this month.

The month started with a rate of just under 200 cases per 100,000 in Benton and Franklin County over the previous two weeks.

That had climbed to 2,550 new cases per 100,000 over two weeks as of Friday.

The case rate for Benton County was 2,416 and the case rate for Franklin County was 2,833.

High teen infection rate

The case rate was highest for older teens at 3,567 new cases per 100,000 in that age group over two weeks.

Those ages 20 to 39 had a new case rate of 2,973; ages 40-59 had an infection rate of 2,618 and children ages 5 to 14 had a case rate of 2,411 per 100,000.

The lowest new case rates were in infants through 4 years old at 1,174; people ages 60 to 79 at 988; and people 80 and older at 595.

The high number of cases meant many workers were either sick at home or quarantining at home due to close contact with people diagnosed with COVID-19.

On Friday, the Pasco School District, apparently faced with increasing infections, announced plans for weekly mass drive-thru testing for employees on Sundays.

Its goal was to allow employees to return to work in the schools as quickly as possible following illness or exposure to someone with COVID-19.

Some school districts in the state have canceled some classes, or like the Yakima School District, moved temporarily to on-line learning because so many staff, including bus drivers and food service workers, were unable to work due to COVID-19.

The Pasco School District said it only had the supplies to test employees and even employees had to meet criteria, such as experiencing symptoms or having been exposed to a person with COVID in the past week.

COVID hospitalizations

Tri-Cities area hospitals reported 88 patients admitted for treatment of COVID-19 on Friday.

Patient counts had ranged from 77 on Tuesday to 91 on Thursday, both well above the 31 patients at the start of the month.

The highest Tri-Cities area patient count of the pandemic was 127 in September, but hospitals report being under pressure now as COVID-19 patients are increasing and the high rate of infections in the community has more staff out sick or quarantining.

The 88 COVID patients on Friday accounted for about 21% of all patients in the Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and Prosser hospitals.

COVID tests

The percentage of tests with positive results at the Pasco drive-thru testing site at Columbia Basin College has increased to 44%, in part because people without symptoms or a suspected exposure to COVID-19 have been discouraged from using the site.

Just before Thanksgiving the site was reporting about 9% positive test results.

At the free walk-up testing site at 975 George Washington Way in Richland, about 40% of tests have been positive recently.

Before Thanksgiving, it was reporting 5% of tests positive.

Both sites are now operating at capacity, but the Washington state National Guard will be setting up another community testing site at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland soon. An opening date has not been announced.

The federal government is distributing free home testing kits. Go to covidtests.gov to order four free at-home COVID-19 test kits per household to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

The state of Washington also launched a website on Thursday for state residents to order free home-testing kits.

Orders can be placed for kits that include four or five tests at sayyescovidhometest.org. Those without internet access or need a translator may call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at 800-525-0127.

For more information on where to get tested now, go to covid19.bfhd.wa.gov/testing-sites.

Debbie Cockrell of The (Tacoma) News Tribune and The Associated Press contributed to this report.