Featured image is attributed to Banco Mundial América Latina y el Caribe under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Western WA’s COVID Cases Level Off, Hospitals Brace for Surge, More Masks and Tests Available

by Sally James


Washington’s medical officials are bracing for the next few weeks in the latest surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they also offered a glimmer of good news at their Wednesday, Jan. 19, media event

“The next several weeks will be very difficult,” said Umair Shah, M.D., M.P.H., secretary of health of the Washington State Department of Public Health (DOH). Even though case counts have leveled off in most of Western Washington, they are still rising in Eastern Washington. Hospitals are struggling with too many patients and barely enough room or staff to care for them properly. Gov. Jay Inslee has sent National Guard personnel to help several state hospitals. 

Coincidentally, as DOH officials held their press briefing, more than 2,000 people were estimated to be watching online while a legislative committee heard testimony on overburdened hospital staff. It was the first hearing of state legislative House Bill 1868, which would limit how many patients can be assigned to nurses, for example, in an intensive care unit. Hospital staffing shortages predate the pandemic, but as we wrote in an earlier Emerald story, the problem has become even more acute as hospitals strain to handle an onslaught of COVID-19 patients.

Hospitals in the state are overloaded, and Shah said even if the number of infected cases of COVID-19 decrease, there won’t be an immediate decrease in the number of patients, which lag behind reported cases. Shah said that over the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, state employees sent about 1 million tests to school districts, community groups, tribes, and other organizations. These tests should help people decide whether they need to isolate themselves from others if they test positive for COVID-19.

Besides sending tests, the State has also sent nearly 5 million masks to school districts, tribes, community groups, and other organizations. These masks include different types, including KN95, KN90, and some surgical masks. Many experts have recommended that people upgrade their masks, because of the highly infectious COVID-19 omicront variant, and use better-filtering masks than cloth, if possible. Here is a useful guide to masking from The Seattle Times.

In other good news, Shah said nearly 25,000 people had received a vaccine or booster in the past week in the state. A new vaccine site has opened in Everett, and two that recently opened continue to operate in Auburn. Here is guide to finding vaccines.

Here are some frequently asked questions:

Are both the federal government and our state government giving away free at-home tests? How can my friend who isn’t online get these?

Yes. The federal website is www.covidtests.gov, or you can order your kits by calling 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489).

You can register for a free kit of 4 at-home tests. Only one kit can be sent to a home, so if you live in a large group, you cannot get more kits. Many critics have pointed out that this does not seem fair to multifamily groups or multigenerational homes.

The state of Washington announced on the morning of Friday, Jan. 21, that they’ve launched a website for Washingtonians to order free COVID-19 tests. Here are the details and link to the site from the DOH’s press release:

“In an effort to increase access to at-home rapid tests across the state, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) is launching a statewide portal that will allow COVID-19 tests to ship directly to households. Beginning today [Jan. 21], Washington State residents will be able to visit www.sayyescovidhometest.org to order rapid-antigen COVID tests online, and will receive those tests delivered at no cost. People can order up to 5 free tests for a household. However, supply will be limited at first, and will restock as supply into the state increases.”

During Wednesday’s, Jan. 19, media event, Lacy Fehrenbach, DOH deputy director of Washington’s COVID-19 response, said the State expects to give away 350,000 kits at first and continue giving away kits based on supplies. She said there could be times when people ask and get a message “no kits available” if the demand exceeds the state’s supplies. For households without computer access, call 1-800-525-0127. Language assistance and interpreters are available.

I can’t seem to get an appointment for testing now. What is being done to help with that?

The State health authorities did not announce new “testing” locations on Wednesday, but new sites have opened. Among these are several new free testing sites from Curative, all listed here. New sites have opened on the campus of Seattle Pacific University and Garfield Playfield, 537 25th Ave., near Garfield High School.

Here is the Public Health — Seattle & King County guide to finding testing. 

Public schools seem to be struggling to stay open because of staff shortages and school outbreaks. Where is the best information for parents?

Yes, Seattle Public Schools have had student protests as well as staff outcries this week about what some see as unsafe conditions. Different districts across the region are making different decisions about being open via online learning or being closed to all learning or being open in person. Some parents are reporting on social media that they don’t get notified about closures until late on the day before school starts. 

For the latest information at Seattle Public Schools, go to this link. In a related development, The Seattle Public Library announced Thursday, Jan. 20, that it will temporarily reduce hours at most libraries starting Friday, Jan. 21, due to ongoing staff shortages related to the COVID-19 surge. For more information and a list of branches and their schedules, go here.


Editors’ Note: This article’s headline was updated on 01/22/2022 to clarify that Western Washington’s cases have leveled off, not all of Washington State.

This article was updated on 01/21/2022 to include recently released information about Washington State’s website for ordering free rapid-antigen COVID-19 tests.

A previous version of this article misstated that new testing sites were opening on the campus of Seattle University. This article was updated on 01/20/2022 with the correct location at Seattle Pacific University.


Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at www.seattlesciencewriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.

📸 Featured Image: Featured image is attributed to Banco Mundial América Latina y el Caribe under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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