Governor says more vaccine strategies could be on the way for Washington
The Washington state government is mulling new vaccine strategies to up the percentage of those with protection against COVID-19 — and those strategies could include both a carrot and a stick approach.
Governor Inslee hinted about the coming measures during a briefing Wednesday, while announcing that Washington was following CDC guidance to recommend that vaccinated people wear masks indoors, and keeping in place the requirement for all students and staff to wear masks inside school buildings.
“There are an untold number of things that could be in the future if we do not get enough people vaccinated,” Inslee said. “There are 30 different strategies that we could pursue.”
While Washington reached its goal of 70% vaccination initiation for those age 16 and up earlier this month, Inslee noted that this is clearly not enough to stop the more contagious Delta variant from taking hold in our state.
“This goal may have been effective against a 1956 Chevrolet; it is not effective against a 2021 Delta variant,” Inslee said. “So we now know — which we did not know months ago — that we now face a variant that is a total new threat. It is a new weapon that has been deployed against us, and we have to have a new vaccination rate. I can’t tell you what that is today.”
Case counts are taking a steep turn upward in a sharp fifth wave, with the vast majority of those infected being unvaccinated.
“You can’t fight a battle when 30% of the population won’t help,” Inslee said.
The Delta variant has gone from 5% of new cases in Washington to 96% in a matter of weeks. Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of the state’s COVID-19 Response Team, said Delta percentages are doubling every week to 10 days. She noted that Delta appears to be about twice as contagious as the original form of COVID.
“Each person who gets infected potentially infects twice as many people, so that’s a substantial increase,” she said.
Taking the stick approach, some European countries have imposed restrictions on people who are unvaccinated. The French government, for example, is requiring a pass showing vaccination or a recent negative test to access restaurants, cafés, bars, and travel via rail and air.
Gov. Inslee did not discount the possibility of restrictions for unvaccinated people, noting that they “are a danger to their fellow citizens.”
“There are any number of strategies that could potentially become necessary. We are trying to avoid those by doing these common-sense measures today,” he said. “And the more people who make a decision today to get vaccinated, the less we would have to consider those type of measures.”
Some of the types of measures that Inslee did not rule out at Wednesday’s press briefing include vaccine strategies like rollbacks to earlier phases for counties with low vaccination rates. He noted that while the state on the whole has more than 70% vaccine initiation, the shots are not evenly distributed; counties range from 30% to 80% of people with one dose.
However, Inslee said he is hopeful that enough people will get vaccinated of their own accord so that restrictions on businesses won’t be necessary.
“I do not want to shut down a single business in the state,” he said.
Another of the potential vaccine strategies could include mandating the vaccine for people who work in certain professions, such as health care. California announced this week that health workers there must get vaccinated or test weekly.
“Some people are in employment where they present a risk to their clients and to the public if they are not vaccinated,” Inslee said. “We are considering measures to require people to become vaccinated in those conditions.”
One vaccine measure the state is already taking is the Power of Providers initiative, which encourages general practitioners to reach out to their patients and talk to them about getting the vaccine.
The most carrot-like approach, the state’s vaccine lottery, increased vaccinations by an estimated 24%. The state government is hopeful that future vaccine strategies can give a similar boost.
Health leaders have expressed concern that Washington’s already full hospitals could overflow if COVID hospitalizations skyrocket in the new wave.
State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said it is critical to get more people vaccinated in the next two to three months, before the fall temperatures drive people back indoors. Last year, indoor gatherings after the onset of cooler weather led to the third wave, the state’s highest spike.
While the vaccines are about 95% effective against the virus, about 0.09% of vaccinated Washingtonians have still contracted it. Fehrenbach said this number of breakthrough cases is normal and expected with any vaccine.
“Breakthrough cases are rare, but they do happen,” Fehrenbach said.
Since the vaccines protect a person about 95% of the time when exposed to the virus, more people getting vaccinated reduces the chances that a person will ever be exposed to the virus in the first place. The more that the virus continues to spread through unvaccinated crowds, however, the more the odds a vaccinated person here and there will get a breakthrough case. The majority of people who have gotten severely ill or died of breakthrough cases have been elderly and/or immuno-compromised.
“[Vaccination] is not just an individual decision, it is a decision as to whether everyone around you is going to get COVID,” Inslee said.
Gov. Inslee said Washingtonians choosing not to get vaccinated have been victimized by misinformation. He noted that people do not show this kind of resistance to lifesaving medical treatments like chemotherapy, which can cause much more in the way of side effects than the vaccine.
“Why do we take all the cancer drugs and the heart attack drugs, but why do 30% of people to date refuse to get or fail to get this vaccine?” he asked.
He did, however, give an appreciative shout-out to the more than 4 million Washingtonians who have gone out and gotten the shot.
“To those who have become vaccinated, a big, huge thank you from the state of Washington. … They have saved the lives of people they may not even know [the] names [of] — the person they’re sitting next to on the bus, their customer who comes to the counter,” he said. “These are people who have saved lives, they are never going to get a medal, and they won’t know who they saved, but we know they’ve saved lives.”