A mask dropped on a city street.

DOH Officials Encourage Caution, Even as State COVID Cases Appear to Flatten

by Carolyn Bick

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has publicly stated that anyone who is vaccinated against the novel coronavirus can resume all activities — such as going to the grocery store and gathering with friends — mask-free, the Washington State Department of Health is still urging caution.

In a May 19 press briefing, Department of Health (DOH) officials said that it is important to continue to exercise caution and care. The state’s transmission and disease levels are still not where they need to be, though more than half the state has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“We are seeing with complete data and even the projection moving forward is that we believe that we are seeing that flattening and that decline,” DOH Health Sec. Dr. Umai Shah said of the state’s disease and transmission levels. “That does not mean that every place is having the same kind of decline.”

He also once again reminded listeners of the importance of vaccines. Hospitalization rates for those who are unvaccinated versus those who are vaccinated significantly differ, Shah said.

While health officials have in recent weeks been emphasizing the fact that young people make up a significant portion of severe COVID cases in ICUs, Shah said it was equally as important to highlight the fact that everyone is vulnerable to falling severely ill, particularly if they are unvaccinated.

“There is a 10-time higher risk of being hospitalized if you are unvaccinated and over the age of 65,” Shah said. “I also want to continue to highlight … hospitalization rates for unvaccinated individuals that are between the ages of 45 and 64. … It is even more dramatic that there is an 18-time higher risk of hospitalization if you are unvaccinated than fully vaccinated in that same group.”

The good news, Shah said, is that nearly 60% of the state has received at least one dose of vaccine. To fully reopen the state, he said, Gov. Jay Inslee wants to see 70% of Washingtonians with at least one dose of the vaccine. On May 18, Inslee announced that the entire state has officially moved into Phase 3 of the State’s reopening plan.

However, it should be noted that only one vaccine — the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — is a one-dose vaccine. The other two vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, each take two different doses several weeks apart to become fully effective. Regardless of the kind of vaccine a person has received, it takes at least two weeks after a full dosing schedule — one shot for Johnson & Johnson and two shots for Pfizer and Moderna — to be fully protected against the novel coronavirus and the many variants that are swiftly overtaking the country.

Shah said that while the State is in the process of updating its masking guidance, “the key message is that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most situations — that doesn’t mean all situations.”

He also said that people should not shame each other for continuing to choose to wear a mask, even if they have been fully vaccinated. He referenced a recent story in the New York Times, in which people who have been fully vaccinated continue to wear a mask, because that is what they are comfortable with.

“[If] people want to wear a mask, we would encourage them to continue to be able to do so, and we certainly don’t want to have any situation in which people are shamed into or peer pressured into not wearing their masks,” Shah said. 

“We want to make sure that [you know that] if you are unvaccinated, you are not protected. … And you have to keep wearing your mask. But also, respect the rules of the room you’re in,” Shah continued. “That means that counties and businesses can make their own rules about masking. So, if you walk into an establishment, and they say, ‘We are requiring you to wear a mask,’ that you should respect that rule.”

DOH Acting Assistant Sec. Michele Roberts briefly discussed certain incentives businesses and organizations are offering to people who can provide proof of vaccination. She said that anyone interested in this can just take a picture of their COVID-19 vaccination card or get proof of vaccination for free at MyIR online.

Roberts also said the DOH has launched a “vaccine marketplace” that functions similarly to Facebook’s marketplace in an effort to save vaccine doses and ensure that as few as possible go to waste, since vaccines expire after a certain amount of time once they are opened for use.

“If a provider has extra doses of vaccine … that they won’t use before they expire, they will share that on the State’s immunization marketplace, where fellow providers can take a look,” Roberts explained. “Before placing vaccine orders, we are encouraging providers to check the vaccine marketplace, see if there is nearby vaccine available for them to use.”

She said that the State will again receive about 385,000 doses of vaccine in the coming week, which “means we have plenty of vaccine to go around.” She encouraged everyone over the age of 12 “to get vaccinated today, so you can fully enjoy the summer safely.”

People who want to get vaccinated or get their children vaccinated can use the State’s vaccine locator tool or text their zip code to 438829 to get addresses of nearby vaccine sites. People can also call 833-VAX-HELP for assistance in locating a site. The Emerald also has a living vaccination information webpage.

In an effort to expand vaccination to young people in middle and high school, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in a press conference on May 18 that the City will be launching an effort to vaccinate 17,000 12–15-year-olds.

“The Seattle Fire Department (SFD) and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) have partnered to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to every public middle and high school student before the end of the school year. SFD will offer in-school vaccinations at middle schools and high schools across Seattle, and the City and Swedish will also offer a series of youth-focused vaccination clinics so families have multiple options available to them,” the press release about the announcement read.

The SFD will offer the Pfizer vaccine to every eligible SPS student and students at the City’s three charter schools by May 27, 2021. This effort began Monday, when SFD began hosting 52 in-school vaccination clinics. The full vaccination schedule can be found on the SPS website.

These clinics do not require an appointment and vaccinations are free. The press release also said that “[i]t is up to an individual school’s discretion whether they would like to offer vaccinations to families and caregivers. 

“SFD will vaccinate all eligible individuals who attend each clinic in alignment with an individual school’s policies. Students will need to provide written guardian consent prior to being vaccinated. Consent forms will be emailed out from each school. Printed copies can be requested from a student’s school, and the form is available in Amharic, Traditional Chinese, Korean, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese,” the press release said.

Correction: The Emerald originally wrote that less than half the state had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

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 is attributed to Richard Harvey and used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

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