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DOH says no early Phase 2 rollbacks planned for counties with high numbers

A dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Lumen Field's mass vaccination site in Seattle. (MyNorthwest photo)

King, Snohomish, Skagit, and other counties that have had COVID numbers on the brink of what is allowed in Phase 3 can all breathe a sigh of relief, at least for the next week-and-a-half; the Washington State Department of Health does not plan to send counties back to Phase 2 before the next decision day on May 3.

The state has the option to move a county back in between the three-week intervals if it finds the numbers are too dangerous to warrant staying in the current phase any longer.

“We are watching the data in all of our counties very closely … at the moment, we are planning to move as the cycle dictates — announce on May 3 for movement later that week,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for the state’s COVID-19 response.

State Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah noted that county health departments could still make that decision in the interim period.

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“We’ve made it also clear to our local health officials that if they do feel that there is a concern in their community, obviously work with us, tell us, talk to us, but they do have the ability to also move their county back,” he said.

Large counties need to have 200 or fewer new cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks and five or fewer hospitalizations per 100,000 residents over the past week to stay in Phase 3. Counties with a population under 50,000 need to have 100 or fewer total new cases over two weeks and three or fewer hospitalizations over the past week.

Fehrenbach said they do not “take lightly at all the decision to move a county, at the reporting period or in the interim,” but observed that the state’s numbers in recent weeks are alarming. With the state entering a fourth wave, the case counts are resembling the beginning of the previous third wave, which went on to skyrocket.

“Our disease levels are where they were in early November. That’s the bad news,” Fehrenbach said. “The good news is, the slope of the increase is not as steep as it was in November.”

Health leaders say much of the increase is due to people letting their guard down and giving up too early on the social-distancing precautions as they go out to enjoy spring activities. Variants that are more contagious are also contributing to the spread.

“B.1.1.7 or the UK variant has now become the predominant variant in Washington state … B.1.1.7 has increased transmissibility,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist.

Lindquist said this was what he and his colleagues feared would happen from the moment the B.1.1.7 variant was first discovered in Washington. The B.1.1.7 mutation is so contagious that in a matter of a few months, it was responsible for the majority of coronavirus cases in London. It also is believed to cause a more severe COVID infection.

Knowing that people are already starting to quit the precautions, Lindquist is worried.

“This couldn’t happen at a worse time, when people are starting to be outdoors more, to relax their restrictions,” he said.

While the vaccine is the eventual way out of this, Shah said the limited supply means that the vaccine alone will not halt the fourth wave in its tracks. Around 70% of the population needs to be fully vaccinated for herd immunity; right now, about a quarter of Washingtonians have had two doses.

The state’s health leaders say instead, we will have to be diligent about making behavioral changes. That means continuing to avoid travel unless you are fully vaccinated, wearing your mask, and social distancing.

And while the governor is encouraging everyone to “Take it Outside” when it comes to socializing or holding meetings, this does not mean that getting together in the great outdoors in 20-person groups without masks is acceptable. Despite the weather, large beach and barbecue parties are still a no for the moment, say the state’s health experts.

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