While COVID-19, monkeypox infection rates trend down in Washington, officials reinforce focus on vaccination ahead of cold season

Infection rates for both COVID-19 and monkeypox (MPV) are trending down, but Washington Department of Health (DOH) officials urge further vaccination uptake as the cold and flu season draws near. They discussed both viruses during a media briefing on Thursday.

 

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Washington had a 57.5 weekly COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people from Oct. 11th through Oct. 17th. That was down from a 98.4 weekly case count per 100,000 people from Sept. 15th through Sept. 21st.

“Except for a bump in cases in September, cases have been trending down since midsummer,” Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, DOH Chief Science Officer, said. “Currently, we are seeing substantial or moderate rates of COVID infection across Washington State. We don’t have a way of predicting COVID-19 activity, but we need to prepare for the likelihood of another wave of COVID-19 this winter.”

Some European countries have seen a rise in cases during the past few weeks, and that could occur in the US as well, Kwan-Gett said. 

“This is due to a combination of factors,” he said. “As more people gather indoors in the cold winter months, transmission is more likely. Another factor is new, more transmissible subvariants are continually appearing. It’s possible one could become the new dominant strain and cause a new wave.”

DOH Chief of Prevention, Safety & Health Lacy Fehrenbach said the recent CDC authorization for the expansion of bivalent booster availability to include children age 5 and older should help. 

“This is fantastic news as we head into cold and flu seasons when people are more likely to gather indoors and in close proximity to one another,” Fehrenbach said. “The new bivalent booster [is] formulated to specifically target the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. These variants currently make up the vast majority of sequenced COVID-19 cases in Washington, so receiving this updated booster is crucial as it offers the best protection against serious illness, hospitalization, and death from the current variants around us.” 

As of Monday, however, only 15% of eligible people in Washington over the age of 12 have received their updated COVID-19 booster, Fehrenbach said. 

“This is concerning because we’re rolling into respiratory virus season and we really urge all Washingtonians who are eligible to make getting their bivalent booster a priority,” she said.

The state’s recent relaxation of masking requirements places increased urgency on the need for vaccination, DOH Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said. 

“This may be the first season in a couple where we’re not going to see as much masking happening across the system,” Shah said. “We may see more respiratory diseases and the transmission that goes along with them.”

Monkeypox cases have also decreased in recent months. The state saw fewer than 10 cases during the week of Oct. 2nd. That was down from 32 cases during the week of Sept. 11th, and 71 cases the week of Aug. 14th. The state has seen a total of 621 cases in 22 counties, with more than 80% of those in King County, Kwan-Gett said.

“Current epidemiology indicates that the outbreak is continuing to wane, though it is too early to be confident that it’s ending,” Kwan-Gett said.

More than 24,000 MPV vaccines have been administered, with 7,798 people fully vaccinated (2 JYNNEOS doses) and 16,515 people partially vaccinated (1 JYNNEOS dose), Kwan-Gett said. 

“Vaccination remains one of our key control efforts for MPV,” he said. “The vaccine is not recommended for the general public. It is recommended for those that have been exposed to MPV and those who are at high-risk of being infected with MPV. Our priority continues to be focused on increased vaccine uptake among those at high risk for infection, particularly to marginalized communities.”

This effort will be supported by the new federal Monkeypox Vaccine Equity Pilot Program, Kwan-Gett said.

“[It] offers additional vaccine allocation to innovative programs aimed at reaching underserved and hard-hit communities,” he said. “DOH is engaging with partners on opportunities to increase equitable vaccine delivery through this pilot and expects to submit several applications by the end of this week. We’re hopeful for the future as MPV cases continue to be slowing. However, it’s critical that we not be complacent.”