Banking on Vaccine, Hope, in the Face of a More Contagious Virus Variant, Inslee Allows King County to Relax COVID Restrictions

by Carolyn Bick

Despite the fact that a new, more contagious and potentially deadlier variant of the novel coronavirus has already been detected in the state, Gov. Jay Inslee announced at a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 28 that he would bank on the State’s ability to administer enough vaccines to stay ahead of the spread — despite the fact that the new variant is expected to become the dominant form of the virus by March — and open up King County and a few other counties in two of the state’s eight regions to Phase 2.

King County and the other counties in these two regions will be able to move into Phase 2 on Monday, Feb. 1. Moving into Phase 2 means that these counties’ restaurants will now be able to have indoor dining and their fitness facilities will once again be permitted to open. Indoor activities have been shown to increase the risk of catching and spreading the novel coronavirus. 

Inslee justified these counties’ move into Phase 2 in two ways: by rolling back restrictions on county reopenings and by falling back on the state’s falling case numbers and its overall progress towards vaccinating the 1.7 million people who are currently eligible for the vaccine.

Instead of needing to meet all four criteria to move forward in the state’s Roadmap to Recovery plan, regions now only need to meet three of four criteria. The two regions that have met three out of the four criteria are in the Western portion of the state and include King County and Snohomish County.

Snohomish County is where the first two cases of the new, more contagious and potentially deadlier, variant known as B.1.1.7 were detected in the state, the Department of Health (DOH) announced in a press release on Jan. 23.

Inslee also noted generally that the state’s case rate and hospitalization rate are dropping. However, he did not note the fact that the rate of cases is only now just starting to drop — after months of peaking and the entire state remaining in Phase 1, the most restrictive phase of the State’s reopening plan — and that, currently, the state’s hospitalization rate remains about the same, according to the DOH COVID-19 Dashboard.

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WA COVID-19 cases data from the DOH COVID-19 Dashboard.
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WA COVID-19 hospitalizations data from the DOH COVID-19 Dashboard.

The state sits at a rolling seven-day average of about 1,800 cases per day and nearly 120 hospitalizations per day, as of this writing. The state’s hospitalization rate is still high, matching or exceeding the peaks the state saw throughout November and December 2020. As health experts have pointed out in past press conferences, though, hospitalizations tend to follow cases, which means that these rates should decrease in the next couple of weeks.

Inslee also pointed to the past weekend’s numbers, during which time the state administered about 40,000 doses of the vaccine per day, and to the state’s vaccination progress overall, which he said currently stands at 575,000 doses administered. Inslee stated last week that the state’s goal is to administer 45,000 doses per day and has leaned heavily into the message of saving lives throughout the pandemic, which has been going on for more than a year in the United States.

But when the Emerald asked Inslee why he would risk people’s lives by opening up these counties to allow people to do things like dine indoors and go to the gym, he said that the State has to “make a decision based on science and reason, and we are bringing both of those to the table.

“When we have a life ring to wrap around nine out of 10 Washingtonians in the next couple of months — which we have, which is the vaccine — we believe this is a reasonable step,” Inslee said. “We have a 95% effective way to save their lives in the next couple months. … We hope — there is a reason to believe that we will get these people vaccinated before this variant becomes dominant and before it would cause exponential growth. That is a reasonable prediction.”

But the next couple months may not be soon enough, and biological reality may prove stronger than hope or reason.

Inslee did not acknowledge that the B.1.1.7 variant is so contagious that it is expected to become the dominant version of the virus in the United States by March in about a month’s time. This means that, within the span of a few months, this one, single variant will overtake the original form of the virus, which has been circulating the nation for more than a year. Public Health — Seattle & King County’s Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said in a press conference on Friday, Jan. 22 that everyone living in the Pacific Northwest needs to prepare for a “Mount St. Helens-like eruption” of the virus, thanks to this new variant, describing the situation as an inevitability rather than a possibility.

Emerging science shows that the B.1.1.7 variant may also be deadlier than the original novel coronavirus. There are now 315 confirmed cases of this variant in the United States. Two days ago, there were 293 confirmed cases.

Moreover, while the B.1.1.7 variant does not appear to be any more resistant to any of the vaccines currently available, the two other known, emerging variants do appear to have more resistance in different ways. A variant called P.1 first found in Brazil appears to be able to “dodge” antibodies in the bloodstream that would otherwise fight off the virus. The first case of this variant was detected in Minnesota on Monday, Jan. 25. Another variant from South Africa, B.1.351, appears to have a significant resistance to the vaccine, so much so that Moderna recently announced it is making a booster shot to combat the variant.

Inslee also did not answer the Emerald’s question about why he would not instead move to have the State work to financially support struggling businesses, rather than reopen and risk more people dying.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You may reach them here, and can check out their work here and here.

Featured image is a screenshot from the Centers for Disease Control’s webpage dedicated to tracking the B.1.1.7 variant.

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