University of Washington in fall

We’re going up again. The latest parabolic turn in our roller coaster ride of a coronavirus pandemic—with all its attendant psychological dips and climbs—is a hike in Covid-19 just as we entered, ahem, fall. Locally, cases have flattened out a bit over the last week or so. But they’re still well above the levels King County saw in early and mid-September.

Suddenly, the curve is not in our favor. But why? Masks are everywhere, and flu season’s peak is likely still weeks away. We have questions.

Has the outbreak on UW's Greek Row contributed to our coronavirus uptick?

You may have missed it while googling remdesivir, but public health officials reportedly counted president Donald Trump’s bout with Covid-19 as a Florida case. The reason? Trump’s permanent residence is technically in Palm Beach, not Washington D.C. Any distancing of Trump from the White House undoubtedly comes as a relief to many Seattleites. Yet the potential use of his Mar-a-Lago address, rather than the site of a super-spreader event where he spends much of his time, to pinpoint the virus’s prevalence raises questions about the precision of local case counts. Are we capturing all of the cases in a given area, or just the ones with permanent addresses there?

Thankfully, we're striving to tally every case in Seattle, where the University of Washington has seen a 242-case outbreak on Greek Row. Many college students living in the city hail from outside the county, but Public Health—Seattle and King County says that our local data dashboard ultimately captures their cases, even if they're initially assigned elsewhere (perhaps one explanation for the constantly revised daily case totals).

Are coronavirus reinfections common at this point in the pandemic?

Let’s address this one quickly: Probably not, but they have happened on rare occasions. The Seattle Times reported Thursday that a Seattle-area resident contracted the virus for a second time, one of only three in the U.S. known to have experienced another round of the illness. While that number will surely climb—remember how blissfully unaware we were that coronavirus had spread among us for weeks this winter?—it shouldn't draw attention away from more apparent causes of coronavirus surges (like frat bros congregating en masse).

Why didn’t wildfire shut-ins stop Covid’s spread?

Admittedly, this was a pet theory. When wildfire smoke hovered over our region in early September for days on end, a potential silver lining appeared to linger with all that yellow in the air: Perhaps nature’s version of a stay-home order could impose social distancing upon all of us, coronavirus eye-rollers included, for long enough to halt its spread.

It didn’t work out that way. Though Washington’s mobility fell to its lowest level—23 percent below normal—since mid-June, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s tracker, the figure was still far closer to normal than in early April, when the number plummeted to 52 percent below normal. “Not a big effect,” says Dr. Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at IHME, of the fires’ impact on mobility in Seattle.

Mokdad believes people put off their outdoor responsibilities for a day or so before venturing out into our dismal air for work and errands. When they did, however, they may have been more likely to wear a mask. IHME’s calculations show that mask-wearing has increased since the fires started. In Washington, an estimated 76 percent of the population now say they always wear a face covering in public.

The institute uses a variety of surveys to inform that figure; to measure mobility data, it aggregates anonymous cell phone data from Facebook and Google, among others, tracking movement outside the home. Both mask usage and mobility factor into its coronavirus case modeling. “What we have seen is a pattern in the United States where [when] the cases increase, people tend to do good behaviors,” says Mokdad. When cases drop, “mask usage comes down and mobility starts going up.”

To prevent our coronavirus curve from taking another turn for the worse, then, we better not get complacent.

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