No way is the Seattle close to being past the need for social distancing, says King County Public Health Officer Jeff Duchin.
"No way" is this region close to being past the need for social distancing, says King County Health Officer Jeff Duchin. Karen Ducey / Getty Images

Even as two new papers from public health experts give the Seattle area good marks for the speedy enactment of mandatory social distancing, strong "stay at home" compliance, and good preliminary results when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19, local health leaders believe it would be foolish to end this region's lockdowns any time soon.

Jeff Duchin, the Health Officer for King County, said today that there's "no way" the Seattle area is ready to begin lifting mandatory social distancing measures. They'll need to stay in place "for at least a month," Duchin said on a conference call with reporters, suggesting the measures could extend well beyond the current May 4 end to Governor Jay Inslee's "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order.

At the same time, Duchin said he found a new report on COVID-19 transmission in the Seattle area to be "very encouraging."

The latest paper from the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling has once again combined public data on local coronavirus test results with "mobility data" from Facebook's Data for Good project to estimate the rate at which the novel coronavirus may be spreading in this area.

The latest findings indicate that due to widespread compliance with local social distancing rules, the virus may be jumping to less than one new person for every person who's already infected. A virus reproduction number of less than one is "really what’s needed to stop the transmission of the virus," Duchin said.

A recent report from the CDC also flagged Seattle's mitigation efforts as exemplary, but Duchin noted the current daily case tallies are more stable than declining. He also said there's still not enough testing going on in the local community for him to be confident in the results the Institute for Disease Modeling arrived at after plugging current testing data into its mathematical model.

Duchin asked for the community's continued patience going forward, and said that before changes to social distancing can be seriously considered there should be much more widespread testing and hundreds of new people hired statewide to help local health departments do contact tracing for new cases as they emerge. "Clearly there is a funding challenge" when it comes to the second need, he said.

Without clearly declining transmission rates, massive increases in testing, and the ability to quickly trace and contain any new infections, Duchin and other regional health leaders on the call predicted that any end to social distancing in the near term would lead to a quick resurgence in local COVID-19 cases.