State Health Officials Cautiously Optimistic as COVID-19 Rates Hold Steady and Vaccination of Health Care Workers Continues

by Andrew Engelson

The day after Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was extending the state’s current COVID-19 restrictions by one week until Jan. 11, officials from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) said during an online press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 30 that they are cautiously optimistic about statewide infection trends and that vaccinations for high-risk health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities are ongoing.

“We are in a very precarious position,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist for communicable diseases. “This is the highest rate of cases in Washington State since the beginning [of the pandemic]. But we’re starting to see this downward trend. It’s all very encouraging.” Lindquist noted that while the results are still preliminary, the number of positive tests across the state have plateaued slightly in the past week. He also noted that post-Christmas hospitalization rates are down slightly, saying “I’m optimistic but cautious.”

Gov. Inslee’s order continues to prohibit indoor dining in restaurants as well as closures of gyms, bowling alleys, and movie theaters. The State’s new secretary of health, Dr. Umair Shah, who started the job a week and a half ago, reiterated that it is still important for Washington residents to continue focusing on washing hands, wearing masks, and maintaining social distancing. “We’re at the halftime in this very long process of the pandemic,” Shah said. “2020 was the first half, like in a football or basketball game or soccer match … it will be months and months before we see any light of day at the end of this pandemic.”

Michele Roberts, acting assistant secretary of health, reported that as of Dec. 30 the State had vaccinated 59,491 people, mostly high-risk health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. That represents just 19% of the 360,000 doses of the vaccine the State currently has on hand. Roberts noted that the State expects to receive 57,000 more Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses and 45,000 Moderna vaccine doses and that the State will be making an announcement next week about who will be next in line to receive them.

“Our goal is to expand [vaccines] to more health care workers,” Shah said. “That could be in the outpatient setting, a broader look at health care — the mom and pop doctors’ offices not affiliated with a system, dental offices, ENT, or pulmonary. There are so many activities in the health care system that might put the individual at risk.” Shah noted that DOH is currently working with large health care facilities to identify which workers would benefit most from getting vaccinated in the next round.

King County continues to be a COVID-19 hot spot in the state, along with Snohomish, Pierce, Yakima, Clark, and Spokane counties, Lindquist said. He pointed out that the highest rates of infection are among people ages 20 to 39, emphasizing that this is the population that is mostly working in essential and public-facing jobs where exposure is more likely. Since the governor’s closure of inside dining, restaurant outbreaks have declined significantly. “Most of the outbreaks are in our long-term care and health care settings,” Lindquist said, “In the past week, we had no outbreaks in food service or restaurants.”

State officials are closely monitoring the development this week of the first confirmed case in the U.S. — in a patient in Colorado — of a more infectious strain of the novel coronavirus first discovered in the U.K. “As of today, there are no known cases [of the variant strain] in Washington State or anywhere else in the U.S.,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy director of the State’s COVID response. “But we know this could change and likely will change.”

Lindquist reiterated that there is currently no evidence that the new strain is more deadly or resistant to any of the vaccines. He noted that the State continues to be on the alert for new strains, saying, “We have a very active genotype surveillance system that we’re ramping up.”

Secretary Shah said that news of new strains shouldn’t prevent people from getting vaccines. “When your place is called,” Shah said, “don’t hesitate — vaccinate.”

Also on the call was Kira Mauseth, Ph.D, co-leader of the DOH’s Behavioral Health Strike Team. She reminded Washington residents to take steps to protect their mental health during the ongoing pandemic by focusing on resilient strategies of hope, purpose, connection, adaptability, and flexibility. Mauseth advised people to set reasonable and achievable New Year’s goals in order to avoid disappointment and stress.

“As many of us set new goals or make New Year’s resolutions, keeping in mind those aspects of resilience in the background is going to be really helpful from a behavioral health perspective …  When we think about purpose in the New Year, one of the most important pieces of that is the scope and size of our motivations and goals … Easily one of the most common mistakes people make in setting goals is they’re too big … We need to keep in mind what’s reasonable in the circumstances of this disaster. … Getting off the couch and running a marathon by March 1 or losing 20 pounds in a month not only isn’t reasonable from a health perspective, but it could be potentially physically harmful as well.”

“We need to keep our goals reasonable and attainable,” Mauseth recommended. “The big vacation you didn’t get to take last year might still be a motivator in 2021, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But until you can get to that big vacation, try to set smaller, attainable goals in the short term. Practicing success by making [goals] and achieving those things feels great. That’s what’s going to contribute to happiness and our feeling of control and efficacy and accomplishment as we move forward.”

Andrew Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Seattle’s South End.

Featured image is attributed to the Seattle Channel under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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