Washington DOH Cautiously Optimistic About COVID-19, Urges Vigilance on Variants

by Ashley Archibald


Novel coronavirus vaccination efforts are ramping up in Washington State while hospitalization rates and deaths are declining statewide, but Washingtonians need to continue prevention strategies to keep the curve down and keep stress off the health care systems, Washington health officials said in an online briefing on Thursday.

“We have made a lot of progress in this third wave, but we still need to drive this virus into the ground, and that’s the key message here,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the state’s secretary of health.

The news was delivered with cautious optimism. Roughly 1.4 million doses of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) vaccine, also called the COVID-19 vaccine, have gone out in Washington State as of Feb. 22 and the state’s health care providers are administering the vaccines they have received faster than they were a month ago. 

However, demand for the two approved vaccines far outstrips supply, making it difficult for eligible people in Washington to find appointments for vaccinations. That process was further hampered by the winter storms that rocked the nation in recent weeks, slowing down new vaccine shipments, and forcing canceled vaccination appointments. However, the federal government is expected to approve a third, one-shot SARS-CoV-2 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson as early as this weekend and is also evaluating ways to get an extra dose out of vials of the Pfizer vaccine, which would increase the State’s supply. 

The overall message from public health experts — when your appointment comes up, get the jab.

“Do not hesitate, vaccinate,” Shah said. “We want to get vaccines quickly into the arms of Washingtonians.”

Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health Lacy Fehrenbach called it a “miracle of science and the human spirit” to have not one but three vaccines proven to be effective against a virus that has taken half a million lives nationwide and strained the resources of hospitals in the region a year after the novel coronavirus pandemic began.

Danger persists, however. New variants of SARS-CoV-2 have emerged in the state, variants that spread more rapidly than the original virus. The B.1.1.7 variant, first encountered in the United Kingdom, appeared in Washington on Jan. 23. By Feb. 23, the number of cases had jumped to 39. In addition, the first case of the B.1.351 variant, first found in South Africa, was also detected in the state this week.

The appearance of variants was not unexpected, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, public health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, at a separate Feb. 23 press conference, but these two are “variants of concern” that may spread more easily, cause more severe illness, and make vaccines less effective, depending on the variant.

“The bottom line is although our current trajectory and dropping case counts are great and grounds for guarded optimism, we must keep in mind that we remain vulnerable to a potentially severe fourth wave given the large number of people who remain susceptible in our population, the presence of these variants of concern that are expected to increase, and the easing of restrictions on activity, presenting more opportunity for spread of COVID-19,” Duchin said.

The virus continues to have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations have experienced higher rates of  infection and death compared to the population as a whole.

The most recent data on the county’s coronavirus dashboard show smaller percentages of Black, Latinx, and other communities of color have received at least one dose of the vaccine compared to white residents, despite vaccination efforts in the county that target impacted groups. However, the proportion of those who fall in the “American Indian or Alaska Native” reporting category is the highest, likely because tribes and tribal health clinics have been a priority in Washington’s dose allocation plan.

Vaccination will not solve the pandemic completely, officials warned. People still need to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and be cautious about spending time around people from outside their household.

Gov. Jay Inslee took a more bullish tone at his own, separate press conference on Thursday, announcing that all eight regions of the state have reached Phase 2 of the State’s reopening plan and that there would be a pause on regions going back to the more restrictive Phase 1. Phase 2 allows for gatherings with no more than five people from outside your household (limit of two households) while indoors, increased access to sporting events, and indoor dining in restaurants (25% capacity), among other changes in restrictions.

Inslee acknowledged the disproportionate impact on communities of color and said that as the State begins to open more there will have to be increased accessibility of the vaccine to the Latinx community and increased efforts to vaccinate the Black community, both of which lag in vaccination compared to their proportion of the state population. 

“Things might be looking relatively well at the moment, but we have to keep our eye on the ball on this,” Inslee said.


Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist with previous work in Real Change, the Santa Monica Daily Press, and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development.

Featured image by Alex Garland.

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