After a brief update on COVID-19 cases in Snohomish County — which are continuing to drop — County Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters spent most of his time during a Tuesday afternoon media briefing talking about the just-released results of the 2021 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, which included more than 15,000 students in the county in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12.
Reports of substance abuse in the county’s youth, Spitters said, are “much lower than in recent years in grades 8, 10 and 12 — roughly 50% fewer students said they had smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol or used marijuana,” with most responses were at or below 10%.
More good news, accrding to the report: Smaller proportions of students’ living arrangements were due to their family’s inability to afford housing compared with previous years. Fewer students reported their family needing to cut meal size or skip meals due to lack of money for food. And fewer students reported engaging in any physical fight in the previous 12 months compared with previous years.
The optional and anonymous survey — offered as both a digital and paper option — was given to students in the fall. Those who participated represent about seven out of every 10 enrolled students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12. It gathers information on topics such as physical activity and nutrition, alcohol and drug use, physical and sexual abuse, school safety, and depression and suicide. The 2021 survey was the 17th such survey.
Despite the good news, there were also some “areas of concern,” Spitters said, including youth mental health. About the same proportion of students as in the past have reported having suicidal thoughts, with a slight increase in depression over previous years. Officials also saw impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic in the survey results. Students in grade 6 are more likely than the other grades to report “extreme worry” about COVID-related economic security, including their parents or guardians losing jobs, family being unable to afford rent or housing, or not having enough food to eat.
Another concerning statistic: More students are spending three or more hours per day watching television, streaming videos, or on a computer playing video games or for something that isn’t related to schoolwork, especially among grades 6 and 8.
There is still much data from the survey to review, and fact sheets will be released “topic by topic, over time in the coming weeks,” Spitters said. Fact sheets will be posted at www.snohd.org/hys, and fact sheets from past years also are available on that page.
He also cautioned against drawing conclusions or identifying trends based on comparisons between this survey and past years. The Healthy Youth Survey is generally done every other year, so students who were in grade 6 for the last survey would take it again in grade 8, grade 8 students would take it again in grade 10, and so on. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the most recent survey was postponed from 2020 to 2021. This means different cohorts of students were surveyed, resulting in an “apples to oranges” scenario.
Also, students were not living in comparable conditions to those who were surveyed three years prior, Spitters said. A number of increases and decreases observed in the data may largely reflect impacts of the pandemic. For instance, the increase in students receiving free and reduced lunches may be tied to the expansion of the program during the pandemic to include all students regardless of financial need, as well as the addition of pick-up and take-home options for lunch during remote learning.
The Healthy Youth Survey is a statewide, collaborative effort of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Department of Health, the Health Care Authority – Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery, and the Liquor and Cannabis Board. More information is available at AskHYS.net.
Regarding COVID, “the good news continues to come,” Spitters said, stating that two-week case count ending March 19 was”the lowest rate we’ve seen since last June or July.” The county has also seen decreases in hospitalizations, plus decreasing case rates in long-term care facilities and school settings — “everything is going in the right direction, so that’s just been great,” he said.
It’s been 11 days since the state dropped its mask mandate in most public spaces, and Spitters said it’s still too early to tell the impact that may have on COVID transmission in the county, adding that health officials will share information regarding any concerns “should they arise.”
The BA.2 omicron variant is spreading both nationally or locally, and county officials anticipate that it will eventually become the dominant strain. “The good news about BA.2 is we don’t seem to see any increase in escape from immunity acquired from vaccination or prior infection and no strong signal of increased severity or need for hospitalization,” Spitters said.