Washington is going to fully reopen soon. Not today. Probably not tomorrow. But soon. End of the month at the latest.
“We are on the two-yard line,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday, pleading with state residents to hold out just a little longer before the state drops its remaining COVID-19 restrictions.
To suss out the metaphor: The goal line, set by Inslee, is 70% of Washington residents 16 and older receiving at least one vaccine dose. Washington, according to the Department of Health, has given shots to 67.8% of those residents. Two yards, or 2.2% of residents, or fewer than 135,000 people to go.
In recent weeks, the state has been averaging about 10,000 to 15,000 first doses per day, according to DOH.
But this is not actually a football field. There are no referees (save for Inslee, sort of) to signal “touchdown” once we cross that 70% threshold. It’s good to have a goal line, but 70% is not much more meaningful than 69% or 71%.
And, to torture the metaphor further, unlike in football there is great benefit to going past the goal line and through the end zone, and running, like Forrest Gump, down the tunnel and out of the stadium. 75% vaccinated is better than 70%; 80% is better still; you get the idea.
“Certainly it is a continuum, not a clear cutoff,” said Dr. Helen Chu, a University of Washington virologist. “The higher the numbers vaccinated, the less likely an infected person will be able to encounter someone who is unvaccinated and therefore, the less likely the outbreak will continue.”
Washington will drop almost all coronavirus restrictions when we hit that 70% number or on June 30, whichever comes first. Inslee’s office says we are unlikely to hit it this week.
When the restrictions are dropped, businesses will no longer be limited in their capacity; restaurants will be able to use all their indoor tables. The only exceptions: Schools will continue to take some precautions; indoor venues with more than 10,000 people will still be limited to 75% capacity; and masks will still be required in places like hospitals, long-term care facilities and jails.
“Fully vaccinated people are going to really see a near return to normal,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the state health secretary. Unvaccinated people will still be required to wear masks in public and employers will still be able to require masks if they choose.
There has also been some confusion in Washington over calculating the 70% figure. The federal Centers for Disease Control says we’ve already reached it. DOH says we have not.
The differences: The CDC uses the 18-and-over population as a baseline, the state uses 16 and over; the CDC uses a 2019 census estimate for the state’s population, the state uses a (larger) 2020 state estimate; and the CDC includes data from Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and federal prisons, not all of which can be easily incorporated into state data.
“We need to compare apples to apples,” Inslee said. “Washington state has been calculating data the same way throughout this process. This provides the most complete, accurate and transparent data on vaccination rates.”
New York and California both lifted almost all pandemic restrictions this week, although only New York reached the 70% threshold for adults, and that state used the CDC data. Only Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, New Mexico and Michigan continue to have restrictions.
When we do hit 70%, we will not have reached “herd immunity,” a term that means the virus is no longer able to spread effectively through the population.
“The general public shouldn’t worry about the term herd immunity; the more people that are vaccinated, the less impact COVID-19 will have on us,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for King County. “We can achieve meaningful, high-level community protection without achieving true, so-called herd immunity. What people should be striving for is having everyone that they know and love vaccinated.”
The virus variants that have sprouted, which tend to be much more transmissible among people who are unvaccinated, combined with the significant number of people who remain unvaccinated, will likely prevent us from reaching true herd immunity, Duchin said. The gamma variant, first identified in Brazil, now is responsible for about 16% of Washington’s coronavirus cases, is very infectious and is “what keeps me up at night,” state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said this week.
And, health officials said, the risks will remain higher in areas where fewer people are vaccinated.
Even once we reach 70%, that won’t be evenly distributed throughout the state. King County, for instance, has already fully vaccinated — given both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot — 70% of residents, according to the county health department.
In San Juan County, the state’s most vaccinated, more than 74% of residents are at least partially vaccinated, according to DOH.
But in Eastern Washington it’s a far different story. Only one county east of the Cascades — Chelan County — has more than 50% of its residents with at least one dose.
Four counties in the far northeast and southeast corners of the state — Garfield, Stevens, Pend Oreille and Asotin counties — have fewer than 30% of residents with at least one dose.
“The virus will continue to circulate and make people sick, hospitalize some and kill some where there are large enough numbers of unvaccinated people,” Duchin said.
Still, the rising vaccine numbers, statewide, are leading to declining virus activity, even if it may not be evenly distributed. Washington’s infection rates and death rates are all at around the lowest level they’ve been since last fall and are continuing to trend down.
“The vaccines have put us in a very good place, currently, compared to any other time in the pandemic,” Duchin said. “We have drastically reduced the numbers of deaths, hospitalizations and the number of cases and we can continue to do that to the extent that we continue to improve our vaccine coverage.”