Omicron variant spreading in Yakima County

Health officials recommend upgrading face masks, checking for tight fit

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Health officials are attributing a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Yakima County to an increase in indoor gatherings over the holidays and the spread of the Omicron variant.

According to the Yakima Health District, there have been 991 new cases reported since Thursday and the case rate has nearly doubled from 314 cases per 100,000 to 612 per 100,000 as of Tuesday evening.

“While preliminary data does show that individuals with the Omicron variant who are vaccinated have mild symptoms, we want to continue doing our part in isolating and doing preventative measures because we don’t want to continue to spread it in the community,” YHD communications specialist Stephanie Badillo-Sanchez said.

The Washington State Department of Health confirmed the first case of the Omicron variant in Yakima County on Dec. 16 in a man in his 30s who had been exposed to the virus while traveling within the United States.

As of Dec. 28, only four cases of the Omicron variant had been reported countywide, however Badillo-Sanchez said the data is delayed and does not reflect the actual number of cases present in the county.

Badillo-Sanchez said only a small portion of the overall tests are sampled to determine what variants are present and the latest data would still not include all the new cases transmitted over the holidays.

Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital had dipped to a low of seven COVID patients hospitalized before the holidays on Dec. 21, but is now up to 18 patients and has been holding relatively steady in the teens for the past week.

Despite nearly all employees being fully vaccinated, the hospital has seen a significant increase in the number of employees out sick for COVID-related reasons, either because they’ve tested positive themselves or been exposed to someone positive for the virus.

“We went from just 17 employees out on 12/21/2021 to 102 employees out today,” said Bridget Turrell with Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital. “Dr. Tanny Davenport, Physician Executive of our Medical Group, believes this is likely due to the Omicron variant. The majority are from community exposure.”

Dr. Brandon Guthrie, an epidemiologist with UW Medicine Global Health, said the Omicron variant seems to be more infectious and more efficient at spreading than the Delta variant and is quickly making its way through Washington state.

“We’re seeing a sharper spike and an even higher level and a higher level even earlier than what we saw with Delta,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie said while initial research indicates the new variant comes with milder symptoms, its rapid spread is still concerning. He said that’s why it’s especially important to make sure people are not only masking consistently, but wearing the right mask and making sure it fits correctly.

Cloth masks with one layer of material don’t do a particularly good job with filtration and it depends on how tight the weave is and all of those kinds of things,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie and other health officials are recommending that people who use cloth face masks upgrade to N95 or KN95 masks if possible, which provide better protection against virus transmission. He said using surgical masks or double masking are also better alternatives to using the cloth masks or not masking at all.

“This is the time to really be thoughtful about being good about wearing our masks and taking the time to get vaccinated, get boosted if that’s possible for you,” Guthrie said.