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Washington State Seeing A 4th Wave Of COVID-19 Hospitalizations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

With coronavirus cases falling nationwide, many places are starting to feel more normal. Pandemic restrictions are being relaxed. Well, not so in the Pacific Northwest. There, a late-spring surge recently led Washington Governor Jay Inslee to halt reopening plans. Oregon is also struggling with the resurgence of the virus. Will Stone has more.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Memories of a grueling pandemic winter were still fresh for hospitals in the Pacific Northwest when a new contagious variant, the B.1.1.7, helped kick off yet another surge.

MICHAEL ANDERSON: We have seen a clear fourth wave of hospitalizations.

STONE: Dr. Michael Anderson is with Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, which has hospitals in western Washington.

ANDERSON: The rise of the curves for admissions has been scary in that it has taken off so quickly.

STONE: In fact, new hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been higher in Washington state than at any other time during the pandemic except for this past winter. Anderson says mostly they're admitting unvaccinated 20- and 30-year-olds.

ANDERSON: Admitted - I have to say they get admitted because they're really sick. It's not that they just have COVID-19.

STONE: Why this spring surge? It could be how the variant has spread here. Also, the weather is pretty cool, so people are still indoors. Dr. Joshua Schiffer studies infectious disease at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He says Washington and Oregon have done relatively well keeping the virus in check, which means fewer people have immunity through infection.

JOSHUA SCHIFFER: It has been notable that states that have had lower degrees of infection have had fourth waves.

STONE: Washington is firmly in the top half of states for how many people here are fully vaccinated and for its rate of new vaccinations.

SCHIFFER: I think we would be dealing with a very severe wave that would probably be worse than the third wave if not for this background of vaccination.

STONE: But in the metro area south of Seattle, rising infections did recently lead the governor to reimpose some restrictions. Dr. Michael Myint is with Tacoma-based MultiCare Hospitals. He says they're busy but managing because younger patients don't stay in the hospital as long as the elderly do.

MICHAEL MYINT: The one way that we're going to sort of blunt and then get over this fourth wave is really the vaccines.

STONE: There are early signs that this fourth wave may have peaked. In the Seattle area, more than two-thirds of adults have at least one shot. But like much of the U.S., demand is slowing and in some places more than others.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi. Who's next here? Hi. How are you?

STONE: In rural Klickitat County, the vaccine tent outside NorthShore Medical Group is quiet these days. Vaccination rates here lag behind those of urban and suburban areas. Chris Faison is a family physician here.

CHRIS FAISON: We're all realizing that this is going to be a less mass vaccination superefficient process, and it's really going to come down a lot to one-on-one conversations and actually approaching patients out in the community and addressing concerns.

STONE: And that is expensive, which is why the Biden administration just announced it's sending nearly a billion dollars to rural areas to improve COVID response. Faison says the plan is to bring the vaccine to people at their church, their work, on the weekends, and this new funding will give them the staff, the time...

FAISON: And the capacity for if we've had a heart-to-heart, can we get it done now in real time.

STONE: Scott Kutlarz is heading to his car after getting his second shot here. He knows of two people who have died during this latest surge, one a distant relative of his.

SCOTT KUTLARZ: And she chose not to get the vaccine. So it actually kind of touched the family. That was kind of the first experience of that.

STONE: One more person lost to what is now becoming a mostly preventable illness.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAUSSIAN CURVE'S "T.O.R.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.