Dr. Alan Melnick addresses the media on March 17, 2020 about the deaths of an elderly couple by coronavirus. The deaths were the first two in Southwest Washington.

Dr. Alan Melnick addresses the media on March 17, 2020 about the deaths of an elderly couple by coronavirus. The deaths were the first two in Southwest Washington.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

A rise in coronavirus cases in Clark County is not only leading to dire health predictions for the month ahead, but is also overwhelming staff, public health officials said Wednesday.

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Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s public health director, told county officials that a rush of new cases is leading to more hospitalizations, could mean more deaths, and is outpacing staff in some respects.

“We’re kind of in a race against the virus here,” he said.

Cases of COVID-19 have ramped up in recent weeks, coinciding with the county moving into Washington’s second phase of reopening June 5.

From June 6 through June 20, the county averaged a little less than 8 cases per day. From June 21 to July 5, that rose to 19 per day. Several days in late June and early July notched 30 cases each.

The virus has an incubation period of up to two weeks. To date, Clark County has 1,090 confirmed cases and 29 deaths. Like many communities, Melnick said younger people are getting infected more in the current increase of cases. Those infections could reach older individuals soon, potentially causing more deaths.

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Hospitalizations are on the rise. On average, about 10 hospital beds were occupied with a virus patient on a given day from June 23 to June 30. From July 1 to July 7, that rose to 14.

“I’m concerned over the next few weeks and months. If the cases keep going up, we’re going to see stress on our hospital system,” Melnick said.

As a side-effect, county staff are also getting overloaded. It’s the job of 20 nurses to notify people with positive tests in Clark County and begin investigating the case.

State health officials require counties notify 90% of new positive cases within 24 hours of testing positive. The county was reaching 63% two weeks ago, according to Melnick, but now only reaches 8%.

“That is not a typo,” Melnick told county officials. “That is the number – and it is a dismal number.”

Melnick said that’s partly because some nurses are still newly hired and in training. He noted that, in response to the sliding number, health officials tweaked some of the case investigation process to help nurses move faster.

“Having a large number of cases come in at the same time, and that we have people still learning and training and honing their skills on this, it definitely creates this unfortunate situation we’re in where we have folks struggling to keep up and get ahold of those individuals within 24 hours,” said Marissa Armstrong, a public health spokesperson.

Case notification is a different statistic than contact tracing. The latter doesn’t inform people when they test positive, but when they’re near someone who has.

The county has 36 contact tracers right now, who are staffed via a nonprofit in California. Melnick said they expect to bring on 12 more tracers.

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