The COVID-pandemic in Benton County has played out differently than in Whatcom County. The baseline forecast for its expected peak on April 29th was a total of 17,716 confirmed cases, which was 11,656 more than expected under the baseline for Whatcom County. Keep in mind that Whatcom’s population of approximately 225,000 is about 23,000 higher than Benton County’s population. Given its baseline forecast, it was no surprise that Benton County’s first update was also higher at 10,052 confirmed cases – Whatcom’s first update was 2,696. In Whatcom County’s 3rd update on April 20th , the number of expected confirmed cases as of April 25th was 282, with a 95 percent certainty that no less than 267 and no more than 297 confirmed cases would be reported. On April 25th, the number of reported total confirmed cases was 284.
A 2nd update was planned for Benton County on April 20th, but due to poor data, the report on the 20th focused on data quality and how it precluded updating Benton County’s forecast. The data issues affecting Benton County have been resolved (THE GOOD). However, with a major outbreak of cases at a Tyson Fresh Meats facility east of the Tri-Cities in Walla Walla County (THE BAD), the pandemic in Benton County is not slowing down, but instead gaining steam (THE UGLY).
Benton County is served by a health district shared with Franklin County, the Benton-Franklin Health District. In addition to being overwhelmed with the outbreak at the Tyson Fresh Meat facility some weeks ago that led to a substantial increase of confirmed cases in both Benton and Franklin counties, it was using different criteria for reporting than Whatcom County, notably it was reporting “probable” cases in addition to confirmed cases.
The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Site (JHU), where I obtain data for all of the forecasts and analyses I have done in regard to COVID-19, was initially taking its Washington data from independent county health district websites. However, on April 22nd it switched to taking all of the county level reports for Washington from the site set up by the Washington Department of Health. This change required the reconstruction of data for Benton County (and Franklin) to delete the probable cases that had been reported. Additionally, during the transition, Benton and Franklin were temporarily removed from the JHU map until the data cleaning was completed. The Director of the JHU Coronavirus Resource Site, Dr. Lauren Gardner, kindly went through these issues with me in a series of emails. This correspondence was initiated after a lot of attempts by me to gain information from the state and JHU, which was supplemented by a lot of attempts by Jim Bumgarner (a former Principal of Sequim High School who returned home to Benton County when he retired) to obtain information from the Benton-Franklin Health District as well as public officials in Benton and Franklin counties.
Of 1,400 workers at the plant more than 125 workers tested positive before it was closed last week. Since then, more than 1,100 other workers have been tested, of whom 56 of the first 400 test results were positive.. At this rate, there may be 98 additional cases of those who worked at the plant, bringing the total to nearly 280. Given that each infected person infects between 1.5 and 3.5 additional people, this suggests an additional 420 to 980 additional cases. Most of these cases will be in Franklin and Benton counties. There also is evidence to suggest that there has been a higher level of laxity in following containment guidelines in Benton County than has been the case for Whatcom County. Across the Columbia River from Benton County, the Franklin County sheriff announced he would not enforce “stay at home” orders and the Franklin County Commissioners decided to take the same stand.
As you can see in the graph and the table, Whatcom County likely reached its peak around April 24th and is in, more or less, a plateau period. However, as you can see in the graph, Benton County is not yet at a peak. If, like Whatcom County, it does reach a peak and then moves, more or less, into a plateau period, it will be at a much higher level than is the case for Whatcom County. If these plateaus continue for a long period of time, occasionally punctuated by spikes due to data lags and dumps or, worse, cluster outbreaks, COVID-19 will have evolved from being an “acute condition” affecting the Whatcom and Benton County populations to a “chronic condition.” Unfortunately, Benton County will be at a higher level (and Franklin County as well). If this happens, it is likely to be common throughout the country as noted in my final forecast report for Whatcom County.
Last minute update: As of May 3rd, JHU reports 494 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Benton County and 348 in Franklin County, both of which exceed the number reported for Whatcom County reported on this same date, 312. In 2019, Benton County had a population of 201,800, Franklin, 94,680, and Whatcom County had a population of 225,300. The number of cases per person in Benton County is about 1.7 times higher than that for Whatcom County while Franklin County is more than 2.6 times higher. Ugly, indeed.
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