It’s been almost a month since King County moved to Phase 2 of Washington’s coronavirus recovery plan. With the twist of a metaphorical dial, friend groups could gather again—even inside. Gyms could hold small classes and personal training sessions. Restaurants could host more people indoors and on their patios. A restorative, if socially distant, summer seemed possible.
Not so much now. During a press conference Tuesday, governor Jay Inslee announced that all counties would “pause” in their current phase of Washington’s Safe Start program through at least July 28 as case counts continue to rise across the state. Worse news for those still hoping to bask in a ray of normalcy this summer? Inslee wouldn’t rule out instituting policies similar to those reinstated by Oregon and California, the latter of which recently closed its indoor dining rooms and reversed a number of reopenings. “There is a significant chance that we would have to take some of these measures,” Inslee said.
It’s not a foregone conclusion. Inslee added that it would be “tough” to make those calls, especially as so many across the state are struggling economically. But the virus’s spread might not give him a choice. “This is a very dangerous position we’re in,” Inslee said.
The recent increase in cases has been more insidious than the initial wave that hit Washington in March—a “steady climb” rather than an “explosive rise,” Inslee said. That doesn’t make it any more tenable. While the region’s testing capacity has drastically improved since March—you can bet dozens, if not hundreds, of cases back then were never documented—Washington state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said that more testing doesn’t explain the confirmed counts peaking on a state level. She cited outbreaks in businesses, manufacturing and food production facilities, restaurants, child care programs, and health care sites—so, pretty much everywhere.
Still, case counts are just part of the equation when the governor and local health officials assess the virus’s spread. Public Health—Seattle and King County’s handy "Key Indicators” page offers information on many of these factors, such as hospitalization rate, hospital bed use, and death rate.
Another data point listed there is one to watch, given that it seems to capture an outsize portion of the governor’s attention at the state level: the effective reproductive number. The figure calculated by the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue and Microsoft’s AI for Health team is easy enough to understand: It represents the average amount of cases that an infectious host will spread. So, if the number is two, a person with Covid-19 would, on average, spread the disease to a couple more people.
For those hoping this pandemic will fade away (i.e., all of us), the magic number is one. When the effective reproductive number is below one, it means the number of cases will decrease. When it’s above one, the number of cases will continue to rise.
For almost two months, King County lingered just below one. As of July 7, however, the county's effective reproductive number was an estimated 1.4, the highest it had been since mid-March.