Respiratory therapist Bailey Synhavong begins to put on protective equipment, which will include a face shield, gloves, gown, head cover and mask, before going into a patient's room in the COVID intensive care unit at UW Medical Center-Montlake, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Seattle. King County, where the hospital is located, has been on a downward trend of COVID-19 cases after two-and-a-half straight months of increases. But the current lull could be, and some experts believe will be, upended as more contagious variants of the virus spread throughout United States. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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SEATTLE (AP) — Earlier this week, there was only one patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at UW Medical Center-Montlake, a hospital near the University of Washington campus in Seattle. The unit had cared for as many as eight patients at a time during the heights of the pandemic.

The recent decrease, along with the vaccination of medical personnel and a dip in overall case numbers in King County, which includes Seattle, were giving a welcome boost to the staff at the hospital.

“I think overall the feeling here is hope,” said Nichole Gogna, a nurse manager at the hospital, noting that most of her staff has gotten their second dose of vaccine. “I think it’s brought some lightness to our workload to know we have an extra layer of protection.”

King County has been on a downward trend of COVID-19 cases after two-and-a-half months of increases, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the county’s public health officer. County data show hospitalizations and deaths are down, too.

But some experts believe the current lull could be upended as more variants of the virus spread throughout the U.S. Washington state health officials previously confirmed the presence of the so-called UK variant just north of Seattle.

“The virus has been working out, it’s gotten faster and more fit. We need to fight smarter and harder to beat it,” Duchin said.

Lines of tape divide the “hot zones" at the COVID units at UW Medical Center-Montlake. On one side marked by red tape, protective gear is required. Doctors and nurses don face shields, gloves, gowns, head covers and masks.

During the worst spike in cases, there were 120 COVID patients a day across UW Medicine hospitals. That number is now about 60, said Dr. Tim Dellit, chief medical officer.

“We are in a pretty good balance now in terms of patient load,” he said.

Fatigue remains a risk among medical staff, Dellit said. The dip hasn’t meant a break for caregivers because the hospitals have restarted the admission of non-COVID patients.

Still, Dellit said he’s optimistic that COVID cases will continue to decrease as spring approaches.

For nurse Lilyrose Fox, her first year as a nurse has been marked by the pandemic as she went straight from school to a COVID unit. She was scheduled to get her first dose a vaccine this week.

“It’s exciting, a step forward in a direction of hopefully putting this craziness behind us,” she said.

While signs are hopeful, there are frequent reminders of the toll. On the afternoon of her vaccination appointment, Fox had cared for a middle-age woman recovering from COVID. The woman’s mother had just died of the disease.