Earlier this week, the Department of Health announced that Yakima County would be able to stay in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan for at least three weeks.

To stay in Phase 3, counties the size of Yakima need to meet at least one of two metrics: Either a new COVID-19 case rate of under 200 per 100,000 people over 14 days or a new COVID-19 hospital admission rate under five per 100,000 over seven days.

Yakima County’s rate of new COVID-19 hospitalizations was 3.9 per 100,000 over seven days, meeting the state’s requirement. The county did not meet the case rate target, having a rate of 250.2 per 100,000.

Previously, counties had to meet both metrics, but Gov. Jay Inslee relaxed the requirements as more people are vaccinated. The state hopes substantial progress in vaccinations will stem COVID-19 transmission.

Here are three things to know about new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Yakima County:

An increase in new cases

Yakima County had 91 new COVID cases Wednesday, and 73 Thursday, according to updated totals from the Yakima Health District. Daily cases have been rising in recent weeks.

Local and state public health officials have expressed concern about that increase. They urge people to continue to follow safety measures, gather with other people outside and get vaccinated. All Washington residents 16 or older are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as of Thursday.

With the next reopening evaluation scheduled for May 3, the Department of Health likely will look at new cases for the 14 days ending on April 23. For Yakima County to be below 200 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000, the region would have to report fewer than 516 cases total, roughly 36 or fewer new cases daily.

Over 14 days ending Wednesday, Yakima County has reported 773 new COVID-19 cases, for a daily average of 55 cases, putting it well out of position to meet the state’s metric.

Capacity to treat COVID-19 patients, but officials on alert

Yakima County was able to stay in Phase 3 because it met the requirement for hospitalizations over seven days.

For Yakima County to continue meeting that metric, the county must report 12 or fewer new COVID-19 hospitalizations over those seven days.

Not surprisingly, the recent rise of cases has come with a gradual increase in hospitalizations. Yakima County’s total daily hospitalizations were in the single digits for much of March but started increasing at the end of the month, reaching the teens in the first week of April and now in the 20s in the last several days.

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If Yakima County does not experience a sharp rise in hospitalizations over a short time, it should still meet the state’s hospitalizations metric.

For the May 3 evaluation of counties, state officials will likely be looking at hospitalizations for the seven days ending on April 20.

While there is concern about rising cases, Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital, which has treated most COVID-19 patients in the county, has capacity, said Dr. Marty Brueggemann, chief medical officer.

Hospitalizations “are still well below the peaks we dealt with last summer and again in January,” Brueggemann said. “From a capacity standpoint, we’re doing OK. It’s definitely not overwhelming us.”

In past surges, hospital staffing was an issue locally. Most of the hospital’s staff is vaccinated now, which means fewer employees are out because they are ill or were exposed to COVID. And the hospital has ample supply of masks and other protective equipment.

But with daily cases rising to levels not seen in several months, the region could see another sharp rise in hospitalizations, Brueggemann said.

In general, hospitalizations tend to lag a week or a week and a half behind when new COVID-19 diagnoses are reported.

Vaccines could help temper a new wave in COVID-19 cases

Vaccinations could help dull the rise in both new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the months to come, Brueggemann said.

As of earlier this week, the state reported that 20% of Yakima County residents are fully vaccinated, with 29% receiving the first dose.

Brueggemann said that during the previous peak of hospitalizations in late December into early January, he and other Memorial officials expected a sharp rise in hospitalizations in the second half of January. Instead, hospitalizations began to drop. He credits the initial immunity from older residents who received the vaccine in January as helping.

So far, the latest increase in cases and hospitalizations has been gradual, a possible positive result of more vaccinated people.

However, new COVID variants and additional business, school and social activity could affect things.

“It’s really hard to predict,” he said.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang