Number of county COVID cases quadrupled in 2021

County data show the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in 2021 far outstripped 2020.

Despite in-person work, school and community events making a gradual comeback throughout the year, county data show the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in 2021 far outstripped 2020.

Island County recorded 965 confirmed and probable cases in 2020, while 2021 saw almost 4,000 cases. More than four out of every five cases of COVID identified in the county occurred in 2021.

COVID death rates in the county also increased during the second pandemic year, though to a lesser degree. Of the 56 total deaths recorded by the end of 2021, 20 of those occurred in 2020, and the other 36 happened in 2021.

The biggest case spikes of the year — and of the entire pandemic so far — were associated with the Delta and Omicron variants. The case count shot upward in July and remained high through October when the Delta variant came to the county, then skyrocketed again just before the New Year when the extremely contagious Omicron variant arrived.

Spikes in local case rates had a serious impact on hospital capacity. WhidbeyHealth marketing manager Conor O’Brien said that while 2020 and 2021 were similar in terms of inpatient volume overall, the hospital district saw periods of high volume when COVID case counts were high. The impact of these COVID bursts on the hospital, he said, was alarming.

“Our capacity to accommodate the ordinary medical needs of our community fluctuates and correlates directly with Island County case rates. Increasing case rates increases hospitalizations and increasingly puts patients with non-COVID needs at risk,” he said, adding that admittance to the ICU or serious surgeries have had to be delayed when beds are taken up by COVID patients. “This isn’t an abstract concept – this is happening right here, right now, at WhidbeyHealth.”

O’Brien added that “large gatherings and super-spreader events that continued through the end of 2021” have also played a part in the elevated case rate the county has been experiencing since July of last year. He encouraged continued vigilance in adhering to the recommended health and safety practices.

Though case counts were high, 2021 saw one major pandemic break-through in the advent of the COVID vaccine.

“The year 2021 saw great strides with the introduction of the various COVID-19 vaccines, but our mission to help bring this pandemic to an end continues in earnest,” said Don Mason, Island County COVID response manager. “Hopefully 2022 is the year we see that end.”

County epidemiologist Jamie Hamilton said despite how 2021’s high case count may cause the situation to appear, the vaccines are helping mitigate the worst effects of the virus.

“The vaccines are intended first and foremost to prevent severe disease and death. This is something they have done very effectively since inception,” he said. “It is this ability of the regular full course vaccination to prevent infection that has been challenged by Omicron. Hence our emphasis on encouraging booster shots during our current surge which restores that protection against even infection.”

Still, Hamilton said, it takes a large-scale community effort to put the kibosh on the transmission of the virus.

“The vaccines are only effective if you use them. Like much of the rest of the country, Island County did not see the prompt and near universal uptake of vaccines that was hoped for in 2021,” he said. “Our vaccination rate continues to climb slowly upward, which is great, but to really have a considerable impact on the community transmission of a virus that is as infectious as SARS-CoV-2, you have to have a very large percentage of the population with robust immunity.”

By the end of 2021, 74.2% of the county’s eligible population had received at least one dose of an approved vaccine, while 57.5% of the county’s total population was fully vaccinated.