Governor Lays out Regional Plan for Some Businesses to Reopen, But COVID-19 Activity Still “Aggressive”

by Andrew Engelson

In an online press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 5, Governor Jay Inslee said that while there were encouraging signs in statewide numbers, “the current level of [COVID-19] activity, remains, unfortunately, very aggressive,” he said.

“We are not where we want to be today.”

The governor did not offer data on how the current round of vaccinations for critical health care workers and staff and residents of long term facilities is proceeding, but the most recent statistics released from the Department of Health (DOH) on Dec. 31 indicate 69,349 of the “1a” tier have been vaccinated.

Gov. Inslee also announced plans for a statewide plan to shift from Phase 1 limits and closures to Phase 2 on a regional rather than county-by-county basis. Each Friday the DOH will release results of its examination of four target metrics to see if any of the eight regions can begin to lift restrictions on businesses and gatherings such as weddings and funerals. Seattle belongs to a region that encompasses King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties. All regions are currently still in Phase 1.

Beginning on January 11, if a region meets four targets on a Friday, it will automatically be slated to move to the next phase of reopening on the Monday after the announcement. Those metrics are: a 10% decrease in cases over the previous 14 days; a 10% decrease in COVID-19 hospital admission rates over the previous 14 days; that the total hospital ICU occupancy rate is less than 90%; and that the region’s test positivity rate is less than 10%.

Once a region moves to Phase 2, the governor said, restaurants and indoor fitness centers may reopen at 25% capacity  and sports competitions with limited spectators as well as weddings and funerals may increase capacity from current limits.

Umair Shah, Washington Secretary of Health, noted that the regional, rather than county-by-county, approach to reopening acknowledges that the virus doesn’t respect invisible boundaries. “Our lives are interconnected; our travel patterns and our activity patterns aren’t just about what happens in one community or county,” Shah said.

If a region moves to Phase 2 but then doesn’t meet at least three metrics, the state can move the region back to Phase 1 again, said Lacy Fehrenbach, assistant secretary for prevention and community health at the DOH. She emphasized that current prevention measures should continue, including mask wearing, frequent hand washing, social distancing, and testing and contact tracing when a person has symptoms or knows they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Gov. Inslee also noted challenges with the early roll-out of vaccines, including the fact that COVID-19 vaccines arriving from the federal government come in cases of 975 doses, and the state was working to transport excess doses from places with lower needs to higher-need areas.

The governor also noted that Washington State generally avoided a more severe Thanksgiving and holiday surge when compared to other areas of the country, touting the fact that 45 other states have higher infection rates.

When asked by a reporter if he favored using a single dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which require two doses for effectiveness, Shah said he didn’t recommend that option at this time, noting that the “95% percent effectiveness for the Pfizer vaccine and the 94.1% rate for Moderna were both with the understanding of two doses.”

Shah said the state is carefully monitoring testing data for any signs of a new, potentially more infectious, variant of the virus first discovered in the U.K. and recently seen in a patient in Colorado. But as of Tuesday, there was no evidence the variant was spreading in the state.

In response to a question about a recent outbreak at in a prison in Eastern Washington, Gov. Inslee said the state Department of Corrections (DOC) was taking steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the state prison system. “We want to continue to reduce the risk to people who are incarcerated,” Inslee said. “Their families love them; they’re worried about them. We’ve directed our DOC to be as mindful and intentional as possible to reduce this risk.”

The Emerald recently reported on a new outbreak of four cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people at the King County Jail in Seattle that was detected on Jan. 2.

Andrew Engelson is news director and deputy assistant of the South Seattle Emerald. He was the founder and editor of Cascadia Magazine and his journalism, essays, and writing have appeared in Crosscut, Real Change, Tin House, High Country News, Seattle Weekly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, Washington Trails, and other publications. He’s lived in Seattle’s South End for nearly 20 years and is passionate about telling the stories of the people who live in South Seattle and the issues they care about.

Featured image is a screen shot from a DOH COVID-19 update press conference on Tues., Jan. 5. (Image provided by Andrew Engelson.)

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