While Washington state public health officials are celebrating the state’s reopening Wednesday, they’re keeping a close eye on emerging coronavirus variants.
It’s been a long journey from when the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States was detected in Washington in January 2020, to the arrival of vaccines in December, to Wednesday, when most of the last remaining restrictions were lifted.
Though the pandemic isn’t over, state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah highlighted some achievements in the state’s handling of the crisis: Washington had the fifth lowest case count, seventh lowest death rate and the ninth highest percentage of the population fully vaccinated in the country.
“We’re grateful for everyone who stayed home, kept their distance, wore masks, got vaccinated,” Shah said Wednesday. “We know that hard work and that sacrifice saved lives and paved the way to reopening.”
State epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said the state is watching coronavirus variants very closely.
“When we first started this pandemic, we had variants as varied as books on the back of the shelf,” he said. “We are now down to really just three books that are predominating this library.”
Those are the alpha, gamma and delta variants. So far the state has decided not to reinstitute masking mandates despite the spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants among unvaccinated people.
But Shah on Tuesday directed those not fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks in public indoor settings and said that even the fully vaccinated must wear masks in schools, health care settings and on public transportation.
In Washington, the delta variant is starting to “outcompete” the gamma variant, according to Lindquist. Locally, he said, the gamma variant is a greater concern because it has twice the hospitalization and death rates.
However health officials say that all vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. have shown to be effective against the variants — though the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may not be as effective against the delta or gamma variants.
“Our current guidance is it’s much more of a risk to be unvaccinated in this state right now than it is any concern for the vaccine not working against these variants,” he said.
According to Lindquist, Washington state so far has not seen a large number of gamma or delta variants in breakthrough infections or cases when fully vaccinated individuals contract the coronavirus.