Pandemic updates: The flu is reemerging in Washington amid omicron wave
Updated news about the coronavirus pandemic in Seattle and Washington state.
According to data from King County and Washington state departments of health, as of Thursday, January 27, 2022:
- +2,936 new cases since Wednesday in King County. That's -36% over the last seven days.
- +57 new hospitalizations since Wednesday in King County. That's a 26% decrease over the past seven days.
- +34% increase in deaths over the past two weeks, with six people dying every day in King County.
- 74.4% of King County residents are fully vaccinated.
- 10,580 Covid-19 related deaths across Washington state; 1% death rate since the beginning of the pandemic.
A second version of omicron is spreading. Here's why scientists are on alert
Just as the omicron surge starts to recede in parts of the U.S., scientists have their eye on another variant, spreading rapidly in parts of Asia and Europe.
It's officially called "omicron BA.2," and this week scientists detected cases of it in several states, including California, Texas and Washington.
Although BA.2 is currently rare in the U.S., scientists expect it to spread here over the next month. There's growing evidence that it's just as contagious as – or possibly a bit more contagious than – the first omicron variant, called "omicron BA.1."
"It could be that BA.2 does have some small advantage," says Emma Hodcroft, who's an epidemiologist at the University of Bern and has been tracking variants all around the world via the Nextstrain project throughout the pandemic. "BA.2 might well be like, 1% to 3% more transmissible, or something like that."
So the big question now is: Will that small difference be enough for this variant to lengthen the ongoing surge in the U.S. as it has in Denmark.
What is Omicron BA.2?
You can think of a BA.2 as a sibling to BA.1, Hodcroft says. They share a bunch of mutations – about 30 or so – but they also have a bunch of mutations that are unique.
"They are quite similar, but they're also different, " she says. "So very much like siblings, in my opinion. Different but obviously related."
Back in November, when scientists in South Africa and Botswana first discovered omicron, they didn't find just one version. They found three, called BA.1, BA.2 and BA.3 by the Phylogenetic Assignment of Named Global Outbreak Lineages at the University of Edinburgh.
The first one, BA.1, took off rapidly and spread around the world, including in the U.S. And initially, it looked like BA.2 and BA.3 were weaker and less able to keep up with BA.1.
"We thought, 'OK, BA.2 is just not as fit as its sibling, BA.1,' and it will kind of peter out," Hodcroft says.
But that's not what happened – not at all.
Read more here.
—Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR
For the medically vulnerable, 'living with Covid' is a big risk
Ten-year-old Chase and 11-year-old Carson have alert minds and radiant smiles, but very uncooperative bodies. The two brothers have a rare genetic disorder called MEPAN syndrome. They can't sit, stand, walk or talk. For their parents, Danny and Nikki Miller, this means wheelchairs, electric lifts, diaper changes and spoon-feeding.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Marin, Calif., family relied heavily on several types of therapists and individual aides — and the boys' skills were slowly improving. But when Covid-19 struck, all that support went online or stopped entirely. The parents struggled to balance their own careers with home schooling their boys.
"We were taxed," says Danny Miller. "I tried to teach the boys physical therapy while it was being demonstrated over Zoom. We had a lot more responsibility, a lot more on our shoulders. You know, as if we didn't have enough already."
Every new surge of the coronavirus sends the family into chaos, escalating the parents' fears that their boys might get infected. They are forced to limit all but essential social contact. Doctors have warned that the incredibly rare neurological disease (there are fewer than 30 known cases worldwide) puts the boys at higher risk — and their parents now dread a future riddled with variants.
"We don't want anything else to potentially compromise their already fragile situation," says Danny.
Even after the omicron surge ends, Covid-19 will still be with us, and learning to live with it will be a challenge for everyone.
But that challenge will be especially difficult for the roughly 7 million immunocompromised Americans who remain especially vulnerable and will have to keep their guard up much higher than the rest of us.
Read more here.
—Lesley McClurg, KQED
After a two year absence, the flu is reemerging in Washington
The Washington Department of Health reports that influenza activity in the state has reached "moderate" levels for the first time in two years.
Three people, all over the age of 65, recently passed away from the flu. The last time a person died from the flu in Washington was in the 2019-20 season — there were 114 reported flu deaths during that time. Comparing 2020 to 2022, there were 36 flu deaths by the end of January.
The Covid-19 pandemic had driven flu cases to a "historically low" level in Washington, according to the DOH. The near absence of the flu was likely the result of so many people socially distancing and wearing masks. The spread was further dampened by people working from home and children attending classes virtually.
The flu is reemerging as hospitals continue to be strained by the omicron wave. The current wave appears to be waning in some areas of the state — there was a 43% drop in Covid cases in King County over the past week. But the surge continues in eastern Washington, pushing hospitals to max capacity. Neighboring Idaho began crisis standards of care at its hospitals this week.
“Hospitalizations across the state remain high due to Omicron, and other respiratory viruses like influenza could overload them even more,” said Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, chief science officer with DOH. “Take steps now to get you and your family vaccinated against the flu. Vaccination will help keep you and your family healthy and out of the hospital, especially those with chronic health conditions.”
DOH is reminding people to get their flu vaccine.
— Dyer Oxley, KUOW
UW and Seattle University return to classes on Monday
The University of Washington and Seattle University will return in-person learning Monday, Jan. 31, after starting the new quarter online because of the Omicron wave.
The return has some students, like senior Kerina Berdgmin, relieved.
"I think it's time to be back in person," Berdgmin said. "We've had almost two years of Covid and too much online class. I paid too much money for this, so."
Aiden Hong says he's also ready to return to the classroom. But he wants to see better Covid testing on campus.
"People do tend to go back home on the weekends, come back," Hong said. "The school could do a little bit better job of making testing a little bit more accessible, and also, maybe results coming in faster might be something we can also work on."
Hong has been using his family's supply of at-home tests. The UW has asked students to wear higher quality KN95 or N95 masks.
Students are also encouraged to take certain precautions, like avoiding social gatherings.
— Natalie Newcomb, KUOW
43% drop in King County Covid cases
The rate of new Covid cases in King County has plunged 43% this week over last.
Covid hospitalizations appear to be leveling out, too, with a slight 15% drop this week over last.
Statewide, however, hospitals continue to be pummeled with an average 94% occupancy rate.
The Omicron surge continues in eastern Washington, and Idaho. Read more about that below.
— Angela King, KUOW
National Guard helping at Washington hospitals
Hospital leaders in Washington state say the assistance they are getting from the national Guard is helping as they continue to push back against the Omicron surge.
Washington state has about 8,000 guard members, but Gov. Jay Inslee only activated 100 for relief at local hospitals.
"We've got a very small group of medical providers within the National Guard, and we realize we cannot rob Peter to pay Paul," said Guard Spokesperson Karina Shagren. "If we took a National Guard doctor out of a hospital to go work at another hospital, that's not solving anything, and so we recognize that and we're a little bit limited."
Shagren says the guard has deployed more than 2,000 members through the state over the course of the pandemic.
Members are now helping hospital staff in Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma with things like transporting patients, testing, and meals.
— Paige Browning, KUOW