Yakima County’s rate of new COVID-19 cases will push it back to Phase 2 of the state’s recovery plan next week, barring unforeseen developments.
Gov. Jay Inslee moved the entire state to Phase 3 on March 22, increasing capacity of indoor businesses and activities, with the caveat that counties that failed to meet standards for new cases and hospitalizations would be moved back to Phase 2 on April 16. According to the most recent available numbers, Yakima County will be among those moved back when Inslee announces counties’ statuses Monday.
“Based on what the governor stated several weeks ago, we must meet both metrics, which we are not currently doing,” Yakima Health District director of disease control Melissa Sixberry said.
To remain in Phase 3, the county would need to keep its new cases under 200 per 100,000 people over a 14-day period. The most recent data, covering March 15 through March 28, shows 214.1 new cases per 100,000 population.
The county also would need to have fewer than five new COVID hospitalizations over a seven-day period. The Yakima Health District reported six new hospitalizations Tuesday alone.
Though the data for new cases is slightly outdated — those numbers come from the state Department of Health, which lags behind local numbers by about 10 days — the more recent numbers aren’t any better. Yakima County has averaged 54 new cases per day during the first seven days of April. To meet the under-200-per-100,000 standard, the county would have to average fewer than 36 cases per day
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick in cases,” said Dr. Marty Brueggemann, chief medical officer at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital.
The current spike hasn’t reached the levels of new cases or hospitalizations the county saw in June or early January, but it’s a significantly different environment than early March, when Memorial sometimes had only two or three COVID-19 patients, he said.
“We’re back in the upper teens every day,” Brueggemann said. “That’s a far cry from January — I think we had 61 one day — but at the same time, it’s not just two or three.”
It’s impossible to predict whether the increase in new cases over the past couple of weeks will lead to the sort of apocalyptic-seeming numbers Yakima County saw in its previous peaks, he said. But the increase in vaccine availability should help.
“I guarantee you, if we weren’t vaccinating right now, we’d be staring at a huge fourth wave,” Brueggemann said.
The issue isn’t limited to Yakima County. State Secretary of Health Umair Shah addressed the issue during a Wednesday media briefing.
“We are seeing concerning increases in disease activity in the state of Washington,” he said. “I think it is really important for us to keep this in mind: This pandemic continues, and case counts are increasing in many places including four of the five largest counties that we have.”
State officials recognized that possibility when Inslee announced his phased Healthy Washington Roadmap to Recovery plan, said Lacy Fehrenbach, state deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response. In Phase 2, the plan allows 25 percent occupancy for gyms, performance venues, movie theaters and indoor dining at restaurants. In Phase 3, that capacity limit is increased to 50 percent and limited attendance is allowed at sporting events.
“The Healthy Washington Roadmap to Recovery system is set up to provide a dial to allow our economy to be more open and activities to be more accessible to people when disease rates are low and then to dial them back when disease rates are high,” she said during Wednesday’s media briefing. “And unfortunately right now in our state we’re seeing an increase in disease activity. We are also starting to see an uptick, even, in hospitalizations.”
The phenomenon of pandemic fatigue — people just being tired of taking precautions now that we’re more than a year into this thing — might be part of the reason, Sixberry said.
“The increase in cases could be due to multiple things, including St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, increased variant cases, and laxing of infection prevention measures including masking and social distancing,” she said.
Brueggemann concurred, saying “pandemic fatigue is real and in full force.” He noticed a big increase in maskless shoppers during a recent supermarket trip. The strong collective mask-up effort in the county, which began in midsummer and was credited with stopping the county’s early summer surge in cases, seems to have waned, he said.
“There are definitely people who are just kind of done with it,” Brueggemann said. “That’s what’s going to kill us. That’s what’s going to keep this thing lingering on.”
Fighting pandemic fatigue is going to be important, but the key tool is the vaccines. Their increased availability — starting Thursday anyone over 16 qualifies in Washington — could in time render all the political wrangling over Phase 2 or Phase 3 moot. The federal vaccine center that opened at State Fair Park on March 31 has already put thousands of doses in local arms.
“We’re finally getting what we needed all along,” Brueggemann said.
That doesn’t mean it’s all over, though, he said. Not by a long shot. And Sixberry concurred.
“Get vaccinated when you are eligible,” she said. “Continue to mask up, social distance, limit gatherings. We are not out of the woods yet and with an increase in variants, we must continue to be vigilant.”
That was an emphasis for Shah as well.
“We know people are still experiencing COVID fatigue,” he said. “We want to be out of this pandemic. But none of us want to see a fourth wave. Our behavior matters. We cannot let our guard down. ... We’re at a tipping point where everything we do matters.”
Water supplies in the Yakima River Basin are looking good so far this year, despite below-average rainfall in March.
Currently, snowpack in the mountains is above average for this time of year, which suggests water users can anticipate receiving almost a full allotment this year.
“There’s a really good indication that we will have adequate water supply through the season for all water users, said Chris Lynch, a water manager and engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Terrace Heights. The BOR, which manages the water in the Yakima Project’s five reservoirs, issued its monthly water forecast Wednesday.
Precipitation was 43% of average in March, Lynch said, but the snowpack was about 121% of average.
“We didn’t lose any snow,” Lynch said. “It was a fairly cool month.”
While the cooler weather has preserved the snowpack, it also meant that water flows in the basin have been running about 60-80% of normal, Lynch said. He said the reservoirs are filling, but just not as fast as they usually do, which he said was not a cause for concern at this time.
Storage in the reservoirs is currently averaging 99% of normal, according to the BOR’s reports.
Flows are expected to pick up going from April to June, according to the BOR.
For junior water rights holders, the forecast calls for at least 96% of their water allotment, Lynch said. Junior rights holders, whose claim to use water was made after May 10, 1905, can have their allotments reduced to ensure that senior water users receive their full share.
The BOR will be issuing water forecasts monthly through June.
Yakima area residents might remember when last June, a stretch of eastbound Interstate 82 near Zillah shut down for a week as state transportation crews worked to repair a gaping 15-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide sinkhole in the roadway.
A culvert that was part of the highway’s drainage system collapsed. It was just one example of the 45% of Yakima’s roadways that are due for rehabilitation, said Troy Suing, assistant regional administrator for planning, programming and communications at the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Washington is failing to put enough funds into maintaining its 7,000 miles of roads and bridges, a problem that’s playing out in Yakima County, according to a new state report.
State Route 410, State Route 823, and I-82 were cited as part of the crumbling infrastructure in the Washington, for which the state would need to spend an estimated $14.8 billion over the coming decade, or nearly $2,000 per resident, to achieve “minimally acceptable condition,” meaning roads, ferries and bridges could be maintained faster than they deteriorate.
“Our infrastructure is vastly underfunded,” Suing said.
About 72% of Washington’s highways are rated in acceptable condition, which means car wheels bounce up-and-down less than 170 inches per mile, according to federal data. That’s worse than the national average of 80% smooth pavement. WSDOT’s annual report, using less strict criteria, shows 93% rated “fair” or better.
In Yakima County, drainage system failure on State Route 410 on Chinook Pass has undermined the roadway’s gabion wall, putting drivers at risk en route to Mount Rainier National Park, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Norse Peak Wilderness and William O. Douglas Wilderness.
Severe corrosion on State Route 823 near Selah may block local access across the Yakima and Naches rivers between Selah, the city of Yakima, and I-82, an important freight, industrial, and commuter route.
Pavement deterioration at the I-82-Donald Road interchange near Wapato may make it more difficult to accelerate to highway speeds for on-ramps, and distressed off-ramps will require alert drivers to manage the change in condition as they transition from smoother pavements on T-1 freight mainlines, like I-82.
Available funds don’t meet the needs for infrastructure preservation in Washington.
Maintenance funds would grow in all four versions of the multiyear transportation packages lawmakers have proposed this legislative session, ranging from $10 billion to $22 billion, using mainly higher fuel taxes or carbon fees. WSDOT might also receive more federal money if Congress passes President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, which includes a promise to modernize 10,000 bridges and 20,000 miles of roadways.
Regardless of whether those plans materialize, Gov. Jay Inslee has recommended a $429 million spending increase on preservation for the regular 2021-23 state transportation budget.
Olympia’s hands have been tied by $16.5 billion in existing and planned debt — more than half of the state’s share of gasoline tax — to build massive projects like the Highway 99 tunnel, Highway 520 bridge replacement and future extensions of Highways 509 and 167 around SeaTac, Puyallup, Fife and Tacoma.
Suing hopes that the data the department has compiled will prompt lawmakers to make a change.
“In order to keep our roads in a state of good repair, more resources are needed,” he said.
Mike Lindblom of The Seattle Times contributed reporting.