As King County emerges from the recent wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, fueled by the omicron variant, public health leaders are refocusing their attention on bolstering long-term strategies for fighting the virus, particularly ones targeting air ventilation.
The shift in priorities comes as Washingtonians prepare for the end of the statewide indoor mask mandate at the end of Friday, though face coverings will still be required in some settings, like hospitals, dentist offices, nursing homes and on public transit.
King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said Friday that while he thinks it’s generally safe to be maskless outdoors, he reminded residents it’s “very reasonable” for people to continue masking up inside, particularly in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
“COVID-19 is still circulating and some risk remains, especially for people with weakened immune systems from disease or medications, people with certain underlying health conditions that place them at increased risk for severe disease, advanced age and those who are unvaccinated and unboosted,” Duchin said.
He also asked residents not to throw masks away once the statewide mandate lifts, in case the region sees another surge.
Over the last seven days, King County has averaged 220 cases per day, down from a peak of about 6,660 cases in mid-January, according to the county’s COVID-19 data dashboard. About six people are hospitalized for COVID every day, Duchin added, compared to about 60 per day in January.
“(Hospitalization rates) are now comparable to levels we saw just before the omicron surge and just before the delta surge last spring,” Duchin said.
Hospital capacity is also improving. King County hospitals are reporting that COVID patients are occupying less than 5% of staffed inpatient beds, compared to occupying 21% of beds during the height of the omicron variant’s surge through the region.
Unvaccinated COVID patients continue to represent a “disproportionate” number of COVID patients and are about 13 times more likely to be hospitalized compared to someone who’s vaccinated and boosted, Duchin said.
In King County, 93% of eligible residents have received at least one shot of the COVID vaccine, while about 85% are fully vaccinated.
Ongoing staffing shortages and a high volume of other patients, however, continue to challenge health care systems, he added.
Still, the county and state are pushing forward into the “next phase of coexistence with COVID,” Duchin said, which includes prioritizing long-term strategies like improving indoor air quality in homes, businesses and schools.
To date, public health teams have provided in-person ventilation assessments to more than 100 King County schools and child care centers and distributed more than 6,000 HEPA air filters to homeless shelters, schools, child care centers, faith-based organizations and small businesses, he said.
The county is also offering free webinars on ventilation to small businesses and organizations.
“It’s critical to take advantage of this lull in COVID-19 activity to improve our preparedness for future surges,” Duchin said. “And I encourage everyone to do what you can to make improvements wherever possible to indoor ventilation.”
Other “system-level strategies” aimed at reducing virus risk in the long-term include providing access to testing and sick leave to workers, continuing efforts to make vaccination and booster shots accessible and ensuring access to high-quality masks whenever they’re necessary.
“(The end of the mask mandate) does not mean that the COVID-19 pandemic is over,” he said. “It does not mean COVID-19 is no longer a problem.”