YAKIMA, Wash. — Virginia Mason Memorial Hospital officials and medical staff warned last month that if daily life continued as usual in the Yakima Valley amid the expanding coronavirus pandemic, the hospital would be overwhelmed by April 8.

They pleaded with community members to stay at home. Staff had already been stockpiling supplies, ventilators and personal protective equipment to prepare for the surge of people suffering from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Late Tuesday morning, hospital officials stood in the same place, in front of the hospital's emergency department, with updates. The good news is medical staff say they are prepared for the peak of COVID-19 cases in Yakima County.

The bad news is the peak is still coming. Though stay-at-home orders and social distancing are flattening the curve of the coronavirus in Washington, the number of confirmed cases in Yakima County will continue to increase. Experts predict a peak in late April.

"Remember the worst of this pandemic is ahead of us," said Carole Peet, hospital CEO. "These next few weeks are predicted to be some of the most challenging in terms of increased infections."'

Yakima County had 400 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of late Tuesday afternoon, and 17 deaths. Twenty people are hospitalized, according to the Yakima Health District. Officials have repeatedly said numbers will increase as testing expands.

Testing has been limited in Yakima County, with a focus on long-term care centers and health care workers. More testing has been added lately, with more than 2,218 tests administered, according to the latest information available.

The death rate of those with COVID-19 is 2.3% in Yakima County, which is high when compared to the global rate of 1.4%, Peet said before local statistics were updated just before 5 p.m.

"Currently almost a third of our patients in the hospital are either COVID-19 positive or persons under investigation," she said. "Within our community COVID-19 has been spreading swiftly, though high-risk groups such as our senior care centers. ... today we strongly urge you to stay home and stay apart."

The rate of infection among those being tested for COVID-19 has decreased slightly, Peet said. "However, projections show that by the time the outbreak starts to decline, almost 100,000 of us in Yakima County will have been infected," she added.

That number might seem high, but new studies indicate many people will not show symptoms. For most people, COVID-19 comes with mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in a few weeks. For others, especially those who are older or have existing health problems, it can cause pneumonia or death.

"We need your help now more than ever. Stay home; stay apart," Peet said. "We expect these next few weeks to be the worst of the pandemic for us here in the Yakima Valley."

Health officials continue to stress that people should assume they've already been infected and take precautions to ensure the safety of others, such as wearing a cloth mask. Everyone who spoke on Tuesday wore masks. Renee Adams of the Memorial Foundation thanked community members for making and donating many masks.

Dr. Marty Brueggemann, chief medical officer of Virginia Mason Memorial, preceded several other doctors and staff members in asking the public, some in Spanish, to stay home and stay apart so as many people as possible stay safe and stay healthy.

"Prevention is our only hope. We need your help to beat this pandemic. On Saturday we passed the 200 mark for positive cases of COVID-19 in Yakima County. Today, just three days later, we are approaching 400," he said only a few hours before statistics were updated to show 400 cases.

"We cannot stop COVID-19. There is no vaccination. There is no treatment," he added. "We know this is a hardship. Prevention remains our only weapon against COVID-19."

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Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.