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9 die in long-term care COVID-19 outbreaks in Jefferson, Clallam counties

"A lot of us hoped we were past this. Apparently, we're not," said Dr. Allison Berry, Health Officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.

SEQUIM, Wash. — Long-term care facilities across Washington are experiencing a coronavirus surge that has health officials worried.

Facilities in Clallam and Jefferson counties are still dealing with a deadly outbreak that began at the end of August. At least 9 residents have died, primarily because they caught COVID-19 from health care workers who brought the disease directly into their homes. Another 131 people were infected.

Sequim Health and Rehabilitation is one of the facilities impacted. Dozens of residents and staff there are sick

"We were hoping we could wall off long-term care and keep them safe while maybe even letting COVID run more in the rest of the community. Unfortunately, that isn't working," said Health Officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties Dr. Allison Berry. "We now see if we get enough community transmission it finds a way into these facilities."

Dr. Berry says people who are refusing to wear masks and get vaccinated are fueling the surge. 

In Clallam and Jefferson Counties alone 6 long-term care facilities
have been hit in the recent surge. The source for most of the outbreaks is coming from within the facilities themselves.

"Unfortunately, all of the large outbreaks have unvaccinated staff," said Berry. "That is the number one way COVID spreads far and wide within these facilities."

At the onset of the pandemic, a Kirkland nursing home made national news when at least 46 people died from COVID-19. Statewide there have been 22,306 COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities resulting in 2,776 deaths. 

Dr. Berry says the new surge is worrisome.

"It's painful to be back here. A lot of us hoped we were past this. Apparently, we're not."

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Almost all of the infected residents are vaccinated. Dr. Berry says the positive cases are because vaccines aren't as effective for the elderly and those with underlying conditions or compromised immune systems.

Right now, the number of cases is a fraction of what they were during the first wave of the pandemic but with winter looming, the timing is troubling.

"Originally we were preparing for a surge of COVID-19 in the fall and winter," Berry said. "We didn't expect it to come this fast. This is not the position we want to be incoming in to fall."

Meantime, state health officials say keeping our elders safe will help keep our communities healthier, as a whole.

"We desperately need those long-term care facilities to be available to receive patients when they no longer need hospitalization," said Dr. Steve Mitchell, emergency department director for Seattle's Harborview Medical Center. "Our hospital system is a continuum. We need nursing home beds to relieve the strain on our hospital system."

Governor Jay Inslee's vaccine mandate for all state health care workers is expected to help cut down the number of long-term care cases.

Experts warn, however, that mandate doesn't take effect until October 18, leaving plenty more time for COVID to continue its spread.

"We care about our elders," said Dr. Berry. "Getting vaccinated is the number one way we can protect them."