OLYMPIA — Washington’s hospital capacity is a key measure to watch as the state prepares for a surge in the omicron variant, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.

“I don’t think the goal at the moment is to eradicate COVID from planet Earth,” Inslee said during a news conference to unveil his 2022 state supplemental budget. “To me, the salient criteria is hospital capacity.”

Inslee said the state must continue to drive down new cases. And he expressed hope that declining cases in combination with antiviral medications to fight COVID-19, currently under federal review, could bring the pandemic to a more manageable situation.

“If we can get to that point, it becomes more like a flu situation,” the governor said. “Where you get a flu shot and the hospitals are not overwhelmed.”

Inslee said he would like to be able to remove Washington’s COVID restrictions, which he has mandated to prevent the spread of the virus, which has killed 9,365 people so far in Washington.

“We are hopeful that a day will come where we become confident where our hospital systems are not going to be overwhelmed,” Inslee said.

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“And when that time comes, we can get back to largely normal activities, including not having to wear masks,” he said.

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The governor has presided over a state of emergency throughout the pandemic to manage Washington’s public health response, which has included some of the strictest measures in the nation. Washington’s death rate due to COVID has meanwhile remained one of the lowest among the states.

State health officials on Wednesday disclosed additional confirmed cases of the omicron variant in Washington, pointing to spread of the new variant in communities.

At least a dozen omicron cases have been identified in the state, including a trio of cases connected to high school wrestling tournaments, health officials have said. King County has also confirmed at least five cases of the variant.

Inslee’s remarks came as his proposed 2022 state supplemental operating budget adds more than $270 million for the state’s COVID response. That includes $173 million for the state Department of Health to continue its work on outbreak response, case investigation and contact tracing, and diagnostic testing.

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The health department would get an additional $100 million under Inslee’s proposal to expand access to vaccines. That money would help to connect to rural residents and hard-to-reach patients, provide contracts with local health jurisdictions for vaccine
depots, and help health care providers to encourage their patients to get the shots.

Meanwhile, state officials are also considering adding boosters as a requirement to the existing vaccine mandates for school and state workers and hundreds of thousands of health care workers, Inslee said.

Officials are waiting for more guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve been waiting for some guidance from them, so we’ve not made any final decisions in that regard,” the governor said.

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