No county will move back — or forward — in the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan for at least two weeks, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday.
Pausing the Healthy Washington plan means all 39 counties will remain in their current phases, Inslee said. The counties’ status will be reevaluated after the two-week break.
Both King and Snohomish counties were at risk of moving to a more restrictive Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan.
“I have made this decision, in consultation with the state Department of Health, because we are in an evolving situation unlike any other during this pandemic,” Inslee said in a written statement.
The pause comes after recent data, including numbers from the past weekend, showed that the fourth wave of infection that had been growing for weeks appears to be at a plateau, Inslee said.
To remain in the third phase, larger counties like King and Snohomish need to average fewer than 200 new coronavirus cases for every 100,000 residents over 14 days and fewer than five hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents over seven days.
Even though King County didn’t meet the required metrics, the pause recognizes the need to be flexible in dealing with the pandemic and the county’s improving numbers, which have leveled off the past two weeks, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer at Public Health – Seattle & King County, said during a news conference with Inslee.
“I’m sure all of us want to avoid a prolonged game of whack-a-mole with imposing and easing restrictions,” Duchin said. “Vaccination is our ticket to a more stable and more normal life and lifestyle.”
King County reports an average of 246.5 cases and 6.1 hospitalizations, according to the county dashboard. More recent, but incomplete, data show trends could be improving, with 215.4 cases and 4.6 hospitalizations.
Snohomish County’s average through the most recent two-week period ending April 24, according to its dashboard, shows the county at 229 cases with a rolling seven-day average ending April 13 for hospitalizations at five.
Phase 2 of Inslee’s reopening plan puts indoor capacity for businesses like restaurants, bars and gyms at 25%, while in Phase 3 those activities can operate at 50% capacity. Three weeks ago, Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman counties were moved back to the second phase.
Snohomish County officials, who said they learned about Inslee’s decision about an hour before it was announced, welcomed the pause. The next two weeks should be taken as a “call to action” for people to get vaccinated, Dr. Chris Spitters, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, said Tuesday.
“This is not a break in terms of effort by the community. We need to take this opportunity,” Spitters said. “We’ve got about 45,000 or 50,000 doses coming into the county this coming week. In those two weeks, we could get 100,000 more people initiated on vaccination.”
Inslee said he understands the hardships placed on businesses and that there is a “constant tension between predictability and certainty,” but said he and the state’s health officials are choosing to save lives.
“I think that we have to face the fact 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,” Inslee said.
Inslee noted that while cases have increased during the fourth wave of infections, deaths haven’t followed like they did during previous surges of infection. He did caution that hospitalizations are up but added that patient stays have been shorter.
“While we’re pausing today, it doesn’t mean we have a clear path out of these phases, either,” Inslee said. “But we do have a choice in these next couple weeks to get vaccinated and take more control over the course of this pandemic.”
The pause wasn’t uniformly praised. Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, blasted the governor for making another change to the reopening plan.
“As the rest of the country is opening back up, Washington is stuck in limbo,” he said in a news release. “This latest change is just one more unilateral decision in a long line of goal post moving by Governor Inslee.”
Health and elected officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated. Of those 16 and older now eligible for vaccination in Washington, 54.4% have received at least one shot and 38.8% are fully vaccinated, according to the state’s dashboard.
“Obviously, we want that effort to continue because we have a long way to go to get to a much safer position in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan also urged people to vaccinate. More than 70% of Seattleites have received at least one dose and 45% are fully vaccinated, she noted in a news release.
“The best and easiest way to be protected from the dangerous COVID-19 variants in our community is by quickly getting vaccinated,” she said.
After months of demand outstripping supply, the dynamic has shifted, leaving vaccination sites across the state waiting for arms to jab.
Snohomish County on Tuesday opened mass vaccination sites to walk-up visits.
Those pleas to vaccinate gained more urgency Tuesday after the Biden administration announced that the allotment of doses could be redirected to states with a higher demand.