Washington in a ‘distinctly different place’ in the COVID pandemic

Laurel Demkovich / The Spokesman Review

OLYMPIA — As we head into fall and winter — seasons known for peaks in respiratory illnesses — Washington is in a very different place than it was a year ago, health officials said Thursday.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have declined, with only about 7% of the state’s hospital beds occupied by COVID patients, and the tools and treatments needed to fight the virus are much more readily available.

In the past six months alone, the situation in Washington has “absolutely improved,” said Health Minister Dr. Umair Shah.

“We are without a doubt in a significantly different place than we were in early 2020,” Shah said.

But the fight is not over yet, he said.

There’s always the possibility of a new COVID-19 variant that could push case numbers back up, especially as immunity to vaccines wanes, said Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, the department’s chief science officer.

Shah said the department continues to push for COVID-19 vaccinations, boosters and masks in some settings. Masks are still compulsory in healthcare facilities and prisons. This mandate will continue after the end of the state of emergency, which is due to be lifted on October 31.

The mandate is an order from the health secretary, not the governor, Shah said. As the state enters respiratory virus season, he said the state “just isn’t there yet” to lift those face covering requirements.

Still, the end of Washington’s COVID-19 state of emergency, announced by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month, marks a transitional period for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“While the emergency phase of COVID-19 may end, we know that in this state, COVID-19 is still very much with us,” Shah said.

The emergency declaration allowed the Department of Health to quickly mobilize and develop tools and programs to educate people about the disease, said Lacy Fehrenbach, director of the Department of Prevention, Safety and Health.

Going forward, the department’s work will focus more on monitoring the healthcare system, providing testing and personal protective equipment, and finding new variants, she said.

In addition to COVID-19 and a likely spike in flu cases as the weather changes, the department is also monitoring another outbreak: monkeypox.

As of Thursday, Washington had a total of 556 cases of monkeypox, including 15 that led to hospitalizations.

Symptoms of monkeypox can include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, fatigue, and difficulty breathing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the most common and recognizable symptoms is a pimple-like rash on many parts of the body. It is often spread through skin-to-skin contact.

Though cases are declining, Kwan-Gett said it’s too early to say if the outbreak is over.

Health officials remain very encouraged that new cases appear to be slowing, he said, but “it’s crucial we don’t remain complacent.”

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