Washington state surpasses 5,000 COVID-19 deaths

Washington state has surpassed 5,000 deaths from the coronavirus, a milestone that comes a few days after the one-year anniversary of the first known virus death in the U.S.

The state reported 799 new COVID-19 cases and 24 more deaths Wednesday, which brought its totals to 342,236 known infections and 5,012 deaths from the virus.

The first confirmed coronavirus death in Washington — and the U.S. — was announced on Feb. 29, 2020.

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Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement that as we recognize the loss, let us both mourn for the families who have lost loved ones and be thankful for the Washingtonians who have pitched in to prevent further deaths:

"As we recognize the loss of 5,000 Washingtonians to COVID-19, let us both mourn for the families who have lost loved ones and be thankful for the Washingtonians who have pitched in to prevent further passing. Each of these 5,000 lives were more than a number to us. Each represents the loss of a unique individual who has left an empty chair in the lives of family, friends, and community.

"At the same time, it is fitting and proper to be thankful for the efforts of our citizens to fight COVID-19. Our residents have kept each other safe. If we had suffered the same death rate as other states, such as South Dakota, we would be mourning an 11,000 additional Washingtonians right now. Washingtonians do right by each other. We will continue to do all we can to help reduce infections, hospitalizations and deaths, so that more Washingtonians can emerge from this pandemic to enjoy healthy lives."

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The Washington State Department of Health also noted the somber milestone.

"I stand with all Washingtonians who are profoundly impacted by this heartbreaking milestone," said Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, Secretary of Health. "We extend our deepest sympathy to those who have lost a loved one. We honor their lives and are united in grief and sorrow."

Recently, health experts say Washington state’s death rate — about 65.5 deaths per 100,000 residents — along with infections and hospitalizations, have seen an encouraging decline.

"The sad truth is that this pandemic is not over," said Secretary Shah. "But there is also hope. We have the power to stop the spread of this virus. Please wear a mask, wash your hands, and watch your distance. It’s up to all of us to protect our families and communities. We will heal. We will recover. And we will never forget those we have lost."

Since seeing the highest daily number of deaths during the pandemic on Dec. 21 and Jan. 4, with 43 each day, the seven-day rolling average has declined from about 30 deaths per day to about 11 per day, according to Department of Health data.

In addition, Washington is seeing high levels of mask use and physical distancing in many areas of the state, according to Judith N. Wasserheit, the chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health and co-director of the school’s Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness.

"I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to continue the trend that’s decreasing — and if we can stay ahead of the variants with vaccines and good measures, we’ll continue to improve," said Peter Rabinowitz, a University of Washington professor of environmental and occupational health sciences.

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Despite the encouraging data, Rabinowitz said there are still challenges. For example, public health officials nationwide still have not determined how best to keep the virus from disproportionately infecting certain groups, especially communities of color, he said.

In Washington, confirmed or probable case rates for Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic populations are about four times higher than for white and Asian populations, according to a state health department report published last month.

The coronavirus death rates among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities are nearly six times higher than for the white population, the state health department report said.

Recent state data also shows that vaccine shots have so far gone disproportionately to white Washington state residents.

A state health department spokesperson told The Seattle Times last month that officials are still investigating the race-related virus data and have not come to any conclusions.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.