State Officials Pause Reopening Plan Evaluation, Keeping King County in Phase 3

by Carolyn Bick

King County and more than a dozen other counties will stay in Phase 3 of the State’s reopening plan, despite the fact that they have exceeded the metrics required to stay in Phase 3, Gov. Jay Inslee announced in a press conference on Tuesday, May 4.

Inslee said that the State will be “pausing” the regular two-week county metric evaluations for two weeks, which effectively means that no counties will be evaluated for another two weeks. It was widely expected that Inslee would move King County back into Phase 2 of the State’s reopening plan, but because the county’s case rates and hospitalization rates have flattened, for the most part, King County will not be moving back. 

Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC), explained in the press conference that the case rate for the County has stayed fairly level for the last two weeks. He also said that King County hospitals have seen a plateau in emergency visits for COVID-like illness. 

The case rate metric to stay in Phase 3 is at or less than 200 cases per 100,000 people. According to data from the Roadmap to Recovery dashboard, King County sits at almost 243 cases per 100,000 people. This data is current as of May 2, 2021.

While local health officials, including PHSKC health officials, have the ability to move counties back into earlier reopening phases independent of the State’s decision regarding a rollback, Duchin did not indicate he will be doing so.

“A two-week pause recognizes new information about our local disease trends and provides time to see more reliably which direction we are heading in, and whether we are turning a corner on a fourth wave, which we very well may be,” Duchin said. “We continue to do everything we possibly can to get more people vaccinated.” 

During the press conference, Inslee repeatedly focused on the pandemic shutdown’s impact on business owners. He said in response to one reporter’s question that “when a business has to curtail its activities, that hurts.” Shortly after, in response to a different reporter’s question, Inslee said that “if we are going to save lives and simultaneously keep businesses open, remaining flexible is an important element and virtue and has served us very well.”

“Now, in this case, the fact that we are flexible by pausing this, I think is going to make a lot of business people happy,” Inslee continued. “We chose not to embrace certainty. We decided to embrace flexibility involving changing conditions that have changed very markedly over the last few days.”

Inslee said that he would like to have “absolute, concrete protocols from here until next … Christmas, but I don’t think it’s actually the best course for us, right now.” He said that he and other state officials are hopeful these counties’ case and hospitalization trends will start to go down and that officials will continue to react to epidemiological trends.

Inslee and State Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Dr. Umair Shah also briefly discussed the situation in Pierce County, which officials rolled back to Phase 2 a couple weeks ago, along with Whitman and Cowlitz counties. Inslee and Shah said that it was a different situation with Pierce, because the County is at almost twice the level of case and hospitalization rates needed to remain in Phase 3. 

Cowlitz County appears to be in much the same boat as Pierce County, with a case rate of 339 cases per 100,000 people and a hospitalization rate of 10.9 hospitalizations per 100,000 people. But Whitman County appears to be closer to King County than to Cowlitz County, with a case rate of 279 cases per 100,000 people. It is immediately unclear what its hospitalization rate is, but Whitman County will stay in Phase 2.

Inslee, Shah, and Duchin emphasized the need for people to get vaccinated. Inslee said in response to another reporter’s question that it is unclear what vaccination rate in combination with natural immunity will “substantially break the back of this pandemic.”

“That is not known to science as of this moment. You will hear numbers from 70-85% of your population to get to that level of breaking the back of this pandemic,” Inslee said. “We really don’t know what that number is at the moment.”

But every person who gets vaccinated means one more person who is contributing to the effort to get to this number, Inslee said. Currently, the state only has a vaccination rate of about 38% for people ages 16 and older, which is “way below” what would be even minimally required for so-called “herd immunity,” or the point at which Americans would be protected enough from the virus to go about their days fairly worry-free, much in the way we do with the seasonal flu. However, it appears that reaching herd immunity may now be impossible, given the sheer number of variants circulating in the United States in combination with a decline in vaccination rates, according to a consensus of public health experts and scientists quoted in a New York Times article published on May 3, 2021.

Yesterday, the City of Seattle announced that three vaccination sites will accept patients without an appointment for either a first or second dose. These sites are Rainier Beach, Lumen Field, and West Seattle. Those who receive a first dose at these sites will be scheduled for their second dose upon walk- or drive-up registration at one of these sites.

Lumen Field is offering the Pfizer vaccine only, while the other two sites are offering Pfizer, Moderna, and the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

More information regarding vaccinations in the City of Seattle may be found on the City’s COVID-19 Vaccine webpage. An evolving source of vaccination information on the Emerald’s website may be found on the following webpage.

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.

📸 Featured Image: Graph showing epidemiologic curve of COVID-19 case counts in Washington State as of May 2, 2021. Image courtesy of Washington State Department of Health.

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