The number of new coronavirus cases throughout the state has generally continued to decrease across all age groups since the start of August, according to the most recent situation report from the Washington State Department of Health.
There's one notable exception: Whitman County, which saw a sharp spike in cases in mid-August, around the time when health officials identified an outbreak among Washington State University students living off campus in Pullman.
"While we see some encouraging trends in case counts, the risk remains extremely high throughout the state," state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said in a Friday statement. "The situation in Whitman County illustrates just how quickly an outbreak can wipe out our progress toward keeping case counts low. It is still critical that we limit the size and frequency of our in-person gatherings, wear face coverings and stay home when we are sick."
The estimated reproductive number -- the approximate number of people one person carrying the novel coronavirus will infect -- has remained below one since late July in both Eastern and Western Washington. In Western Washington, the reproductive number is about 0.86, which is down from the state's last estimate of about 0.97. On the east side of the state, state officials are estimating the latest reproductive number is at 0.91, which is down from 0.98 in its last report.
This could mean COVID-19 transmission is declining, health officials say, though the report noted more time is needed to tell if the downward trend is real. The goal is a number "well below one," the Friday statement said.
While the general decrease in cases is encouraging, health officials are still keeping an eye on plateaus and upticks in cases in some counties. In King County, for example, the continued plateau of cases won't be enough to safely open schools, the report said.
For the past three weeks, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the state has stayed fairly stable, with about 10 to 15 deaths per day, the report said. If that pattern continues, the state will likely experience 1,250 to 1,875 deaths by the end of the year -- boosting COVID-19 to one of the leading causes of mortality in Washington in 2020.
But Washingtonians are interacting more safely with each other, and it's making a difference, according to the report, which suggests that while we're more mobile than we were in April, we're taking more precautions.
"Limiting the size and frequency of gatherings, wearing masks, and keeping physical distance from others where possible remain the most effective ways to limit COVID-19 transmission," the report said. "To reduce transmission, high compliance with masking and distancing policies and anticipating and rapidly containing outbreaks remain extremely important to continue to prevent further uncontained outbreaks."