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Monitoring the COVID-19 Surge Peak in Benton County - Update Possible?

Byy On

On April 7th, I wrote that the COVID-pandemic in Benton County appeared to be playing out differently than in Whatcom County. Its surge peak was expected on April 29th, four days after the peak in Whatcom County. The baseline forecast for its peak was a total of 17,716 confirmed cases, which was 11,656 more than expected in the baseline for Whatcom County. Keep in mind that Whatcom’s population of 225,300 is about 23,000 higher than Benton County’s population. Also, keep in mind that the baselines were generated before containment measures took effect. This was intentional, so the impact and efficacy of containment measures could be examined via subsequent updates. Finally, I had planned to update this baseline in a manner similar to what I had been doing for Whatcom County.

However, I have decided to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, updating the Benton County baseline forecast. The data are a mess, affecting even the Johns Hopkins University corona virus resource site. I checked the number of total confirmed cases at about noon on Sunday (April 18th), and found they had skyrocketed to over 500. By 3.00 p.m. the number had been changed to 319, and at 8.00 p.m. it was reduced to 314.

About a week ago, there was an outbreak at the Tyson Fresh Meats Packing Plant in Wallula, (east of Pasco, across the Snake River in Walla Walla County) and the virus appears to have re-ignited since then, on even a larger scale. It has reached the point where 1,300 people have signed a petition demanding the plant’s closure. Along with the nursing home outbreaks, the outbreak in this plant may have overwhelmed the Benton-Franklin and Walla Walla Health Districts. This could cause, among other problems, officials to have difficulty sorting the cases into places of residence. Vital statistics are reported both by place of occurrence and by place of residence.

However, as I recorded the daily data for Benton County, I was able to compare them with the data for Whatcom County. Although Whatcom County data are also “lumpy,” in that they show lags and subsequent data dumps, as well as spikes from local senior facilities, it was clear that Benton County data were far more problematic. The reporting lags and data dumps/spikes were even more pronounced. What had already been a yellow caution sign, on Sunday became a big red stop sign for me.

The major issue with lags and spikes for Benton County is illustrated in the graph at the top of this article. It shows almost no increase in the number of cases in Benton County for five days. Then, in the last three days of recorded data, April 17th through 19th, there is a surge. So the question becomes, was there really a surge, or are these numbers the result of a data dump from the five preceding days? If the numbers are accurately represented, it suggests a surge has gained new impetus. Could it stem from the Tyson plant cases and subsequent infections they will likely cause? Or, if it is an artifact of reporting, has the rate of infection actually slowed down to the point where Benton County is beginning to plateau? It’s hard to tell.

I will monitor the Johns Hopkins corona virus resource website, and record data for Benton, Franklin, and Walla Walla counties to see if something can be salvaged. People I know in the Tri-Cities have reported that there is virtually nothing on the likely course of COVID-19 there. Perhaps these data issues are one of the reasons.

The situation in Benton County shows the importance of timely and accurate data. Without reliable data, it is difficult to gauge the present situation, much less the future. We need to thank the Whatcom County Health Department, as well as the county and city governments for their work in identifying and reporting cases. It may not be perfect, but it has been sufficiently reliable that it can be used for producing reasonable analyses and forecasts.

Comments by Readers

Tom Dohman

Apr 20, 2020

Dr. Swanson:  Having lived for 22+ years in the Tri-Cities, I am a bit perplexed when you state Benton County data in numerous places in your latest update.  My understanding is that the Benton Franklin Health District is a joint entity and the 3 cities health data (Richland, Kennewick & Pasco) are all interwoven together.  Also, I believe a great many of the COVID-19 cases related to Tyson Fresh Meats in Wallula reflect quite an abundance of Tri-City residents.  Maybe it is largely semantics or imprecise terminology but are you referring to Benton & Franklin counties in your analyses of the data?  You likely know that the 3 cities function in practical terms as one larger city - in terms of people intermingling and crossing over in the heavier shopping & commercial areas of Kennewick.

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David A. Swanson

Apr 20, 2020

Hi Tom Dohman,

As  a graduate of Kennewick High School who attended CBC I am reasonably familiar with the history of the two counties. With friends and family members still living in the Tri-Cities, I also am reasonably familiar with how it has changed over the years because of my regular visits. In addition to the historical and current social connections, I also have a somewhat holistic view of the area becuase of professional work I have done with staff at PNNL on the Hanford Dose Reconstruction Project.  A holistic view, however, does not mean I am unable to separate Benton and Franklin counties. 

If you read the article more carefully, you will see that it refers only  to Benton County’s COVID-19 cases.   Because Benton County shares a public health district with Franklin County, it is necessary to bring in “Benton-Franklin” when discussing the Benton County data.  In addition, the work-related commuting that brings residents of Benton and Franklin County into Wallula requires that Walla Walla County be brought into the picture, not only because of the Tyson plant but also because of the other employers in the Port of Walla Walla’s Industrial Park, not to mention the PCA plant farther down the highway.  In addition, there is, as I am sure that you as a resident of 22+ years would know, the work-related commuting from Burbank into Franklin and Benton Counties.  in short, the piece is about Benton County, but writing abut it as if stood in isolation, is impossible. It would be like writing about the Red Mountain AVA wiithout bringing in Yakima, Franklin and Walla Walla counties, not to mention Seattle, Portland and areas far beyond Kiona/Benton City. We can leave Umatilla County for another day.

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