While hospital systems remain stressed by the ongoing surge in coronavirus cases driven by the delta variant and unvaccinated people, health officials announced at a Thursday press briefing that state data indicates case rates could plateau — for now.

But officials warn Labor Day weekend gatherings could lead to another spike in cases and hospitalizations.

Though the state is still in the the fifth wave, officials expressed hope that cases could flatten. But hospitalizations may remain high for a few more weeks.

Scott Lindquist, acting chief science officer for the Department of Health, urged people to use caution during Labor Day weekend and be mindful of any “risky” behavior because “our emergency rooms, our intensive care units are so full.”

“We’re seeing hospitalization numbers we have never seen before,” Lindquist said.

The Washington State Fair begins Friday in Puyallup, despite health officials’ warning earlier this week to remain “extremely cautious” about attending mass gatherings.

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Pierce County issued a health order Wednesday requiring people visiting the fair to mask up both indoors and outdoors, regardless of their vaccination status.

King County also announced Thursday that masks will be required at all outdoor events in King County with 500 or more people starting Tuesday.

Vaccines are still the best tool to beat the pandemic, Lindquist said, reminding people that the goal of the vaccine is not to prevent infections (although it often does that) but rather to prevent severe hospitalizations and deaths.

Unvaccinated people are 20 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said.

The health care system is in a critical time, Shah said. To avoid it being stretched further, people need to do all they can to prevent transmission and keep their communities safe by wearing masks, getting vaccinated if eligible and staying out of large crowds, he said.

Shah also addressed concerns surrounding the return of many Seattle-area children to classrooms this week. Updated COVID-19 guidance for schools will be released next week, and will include more detailed information on existing health and safety requirements, Shah said.

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The updated guidance will also outline how testing can be used and how to set up procedures to quickly respond to possible cases of coronavirus, he added.

The goal is to keep schools open and safe for children to attend, Shah said, adding that in-person learning is key to children’s development and overall well-being.

“That’s the reason that we’re working so tirelessly with our partners across the state,” Shah said. “I will tell you I see that in my kids every single day.”

About a third to half of Washington children have started in-person school, said Michaela Miller, deputy superintendent of public instruction. By the end of next week, all estimated 1.1 million students will be back in school, either online or in person, she said.

“Schools don’t work autonomously, they work in conjunction with the community that they’re in,” she said, emphasizing that the responsibility to keep children safe doesn’t solely lie on schools, but on the community too.

Families should make sure to be vaccinated and model safety precautions so their children can follow suit, she said. Though coronavirus case and death rates are incredibly low among children, they are still susceptible to the virus, she said.

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Health officials outlined current layered safety measures schools are expected to follow in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus among children who remain vulnerable to exposure.

The layered mitigation approach encourages K-12 schools to enforce mask use and social distancing, have anyone who feels the slightest bit sick stay home and maximize air circulation by opening windows or scheduling lessons outside if the weather allows for it, Shah said.

Most schools in Washington are enrolled in the state’s “Learn to Return” program, which allows schools to choose the coronavirus testing curricula that works best for them, Shah said, and it’s not too late for those not yet enrolled to do so.

Parents should be talking to their children about COVID-19 safety as well, he said. “It’s not just about what happens during those school hours, it’s what happens prior to getting to school, what happens after kids leave school,” Shah said.