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Coronavirus In Seattle
caption: Registered nurse Tina Nguyen administers a Covid-19 test on Friday, November 20, 2020, at the International Community Health Services drive thru testing site on 8th Avenue South in Seattle's International District.
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Registered nurse Tina Nguyen administers a Covid-19 test on Friday, November 20, 2020, at the International Community Health Services drive thru testing site on 8th Avenue South in Seattle's International District.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Pandemic updates: Washington runs out of free Covid tests, again

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 Wednesday, February 2, 2022:

  • +3,137 new cases since Monday in King County. That's -41% over the last seven days.
  • +99 new hospitalizations since Monday in King County. That's an 8% decrease over the past seven days.
  • 10% decrease in deaths over the past two weeks, with five people dying every day in King County.
  • 78.1% of King County residents are fully vaccinated.
  • 10,776 Covid-19 related deaths across Washington state; 1% death rate since the beginning of the pandemic.

QFC and Fred Meyer get supply of free N95 masks to hand out

Pharmacies at western Washington QFC and Fred Meyer stores will have free N95 masks on hand while supplies last, staring Thursday, February 3.

Each customer can get up to three non-surgical N95 masks upon request. The mask are far better at filtering air than cloth masks, and protect the wearer more.

“QFC is grateful for the ongoing role we’re able to play in helping help our associates and customers protect themselves and their communities against Covid-19,” said Chris Albi, president of QFC. “We have many accessible stores across the region and invite our customers to visit to pick up free non-surgical respirator masks for their household.”

Parent company Kroger is hyping the mask giveaway as the "largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history."

Dr. Marc Watkins, Kroger’s chief medical officer, said that the company is proud to "continue our partnership the Biden Administration and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reduce the spread of the aggressive omicron variant in the communities we serve.”

The free mask giveaway is not exclusive to QFC and Fred Meyer. The federal government is supplying pharmacies and community groups with N95 masks across the country, with the goal of increase protection against Covid, especially as the more transmissible omicron variant continues to spread, placing a strain on the hospital system. Check with your local pharmacy about the availability of free masks.

— Dyer Oxley, KUOW

Washington runs out of free Covid tests, again

The Washington State Department of Health has once again run out of free Covid home test kits. DOH is distributing the tests via the website sayyescovidhometest.org.

This is not the same supply of Covid tests that are used at testing sites, which are still up and running.

This is the second spurt of the state's effort to mail free Covid tests to residents, and the second time people have ordered all available supplies within a day.

The state initially launched its free Covid test website on Jan. 21 with the goal of distributing 3 million free tests. But at the time, DOH only had about 650,000 tests to mail out. Supplies went quickly.

On Tuesday, Feb. 1, the DOH announced it got a shipment of enough kits to serve 120,000 more Washington households. By the morning of February 2, DOH's website was displaying this message:

"Thank you for your interest in Say Yes! COVID Test. We have had an overwhelming response to the initiative and have already exhausted the limited supply available for home delivery."

DOH has been making the free test kits available as they arrive in the state.

Washington state's effort is separate than the federal program that also mails out free Covid test kits to residents by mail. You can order those through the United States Postal Service.

— Angela King & Dyer Oxley, KUOW

Restaurants ask for more federal aid

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was signed into law last March, providing more than $28 billion dollars to help struggling restaurants.

Oliver Bangera, owner of Nirmal’s in Pioneer Square, said his restaurant applied and qualified, but the federal dollars ran out.

“Not one penny," Bangera said. "We were optimistic that once we got that money we can survive.”

Bangera was part of a group of local businesses who recently met online with Washington Senator Maria Cantwell.

More than 3,300 restaurants across the state have closed since the pandemic. Those that remain open are deep in debt, about $160,000 on average.

They say once their doors close, it’s hard to reopen.

—Ruby de Luna, KUOW

Reduce patient load on nurses, unions say

A group of healthcare unions says they know how to fix a shortage of hospital nurses — and keep them from burning out.

The group — called Washington Safe and Healthy — is pushing for a new law (in the state legislature) to set nurse-to-patient ratios at hospitals.

Patricia Pittman, a health policy researcher, analyzed nearly one hundred studies on healthcare staffing, at the request of the group.

She says nurses often burnout and leave because they have too many patients at a time: “No matter how many nurses you train, if you have a leaky bucket and they end up going to work in real estate because working as a nurse is intolerable, you’re not going to solve the problem.”

David Keepnews, who heads the Washington State Nurses Association, says nurses have to care for more patients than is safe.

“New graduates emerge from nursing school, so enthusiastic, so idealistic, so filled with new knowledge, and then they see what’s happening and they burnout and leave," Keepnews said. "I think that’s tragic.”

California has mandated nurse to patient ratios since 2004.

Many Washington hospitals are opposed to the new bill. They say the rules in California didn’t stop nurse shortages there, and that there are not enough nurses to fill open positions – anywhere in the country.

—Anna Boiko-Weyrauch, KUOW

Covid-19 vaccine for young kids could be ready this month

The last age group of the population unable to get a Covid-19 vaccine may soon be able to do so — and much earlier than anticipated.

Pfizer-BioNTech is expected to file a submission for emergency use to the Food and Drug Administration for a vaccine regimen designed for use in children aged six months to five years, according to a person familiar with the plan. The companies could file for the authorization as early as Tuesday.

Clinical trials last fall showed that the low doses of the vaccine generated protection in children up to 2 years old but failed to do so in kids aged 2-5. The companies announced in December they'd add a third dose to its trials, which would delay the submission to the FDA.

Emergency use authorization could allow children to begin a two-dose regimen, which would prepare children between 2-5 years old to receive a third shot when the data demonstrates its effective.

"By now they probably have more information on whether the two shots provided any protection at all," Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the University of California San Francisco Department of Medicine, said .

"It seems likely the third shot will be necessary ... but you can't get shot #3 until you've [had] shots 1 and 2," he wrote in an email Monday night.

A spokesperson for Pfizer emailed a written statement that says "At this time, we have not filed a submission, and we're continuing to collect and analyze data from both two and three doses in our younger age cohort."

The FDA authorized the companies' vaccine for children aged 5 through 11 years old last October, but use among children remains significantly lower than the overall population. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 21.6% of children 5-11 are fully vaccinated.

Read more here.

Peter Granitz & Rob Stein, NPR

Cuba has come up with 5 Covid vaccine candidates

In the early days of the Covid pandemic, Cuba decided it was going to make its own vaccine – even though vaccine development historically takes years, even decades, to bear fruit.

Why did the Communist island nation decide to go it alone?

It didn't want to rely on the whims of foreign governments or international pharmaceutical companies to immunize its people. Cuba didn't even sign up for the COVAX program, backed by the World Health Organization, that was promising to purchase vaccines in bulk and distribute them equitably around the globe.

Cuba was taking a gamble that it could develop a vaccine before the coronavirus swept across on the island.

"I don't like the word 'gamble'," says Cuban virologist Amilcar Pérez Riverol about his nation's strategy. "I prefer the word 'risky'."

Pérez Riverol left Cuba in 2013 and now works as researcher at the São Paulo Research Foundation at São Paulo State University in Brazil. But he writes regularly about the Covid situation in Cuba on his Facebook page and elsewhere. He used to work in the labs in Havana that were tasked with developing Cuba's home-grown vaccines.

And he was confident that Cuban scientists could win this race against the virus. "I was there, I worked there. I know the people who work there, the spirit they have, the institution they have," he says. It was a huge project, but when they launched it, he says he thought, "Yeah, they can do that."

Cuba's vaccine development effort wasn't just risky from health perspective. Politically if the rest of the world got vaccine far earlier than Cuba, it would be a huge blow to the government. Pérez Riverol says getting a Cuban-made vaccine became an all-consuming project for the country.

Read more here.

Jason Beaubien, NPR

UW Medicine reopens Covid testing sites in Ballard and Lake Sammamish Park

The University of Washington has reopened a pair of Covid testing sites in Ballard and in Lake Sammamish State Park.

The two were temporarily closed last month because of the overwhelming crush of people trying to get tested amid the omicron surge.

Dr. Patrick Mathias UW Medicine says the sites will continue to prioritize those who are either showing symptoms or have been exposed to the infection.

"Even though we are on the down slope, hopefully, with omicron cases, there's still quite a bit of circulating infection in the community and we want to make sure that we can identify as many of those cases for those who are at highest risk," Dr. Mathias said.

"And at this point, we are doing very well with our turnaround times, our average turnaround times around 24 hours right now, and we foresee that that will continue."

Dr. Mathias also commented on the BA.2 version of omicron that has shown up in Washington. It is also called "stealth omicron" due to its ability to go undetected by many tests. But that's not an issue at UW's testing sites, according to Mathias.

"The BA.2 variant, we are able to pick that up with our regular diagnostic PCR testing without a problem. We don't have any concern about missing infections."

— Ruby de Luna, Angela King, KUOW