OLYMPIA — Counties in Washington state won’t be able to relax restrictions further for at least two weeks as confirmed cases of the new coronavirus climb around the state, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday.
And with a “steady increase” in cases across Washington, the governor, in a news conference, warned he may have to roll back parts of the gradual reopening made in recent months since the pandemic peaked here.
As the virus roars back across chunks of America, Washington, so far, has avoided the steep rise in confirmed cases and hospitalizations seen in Arizona, Florida and elsewhere.
But Inslee said the current rise of confirmed cases here — along with an estimated transmission rate indicating infected people are spreading the virus to others — leaves Washington in “a dangerous position” if left unchecked.
“You can drown with the tide coming in, if you don’t move, even though it’s really slow, just as much … as a big, instant wave,” Inslee said. “And that’s the situation we’re looking at. An incoming tide, in my view.”
Hospitalizations for cases of COVID-19 in Washington ticked up in June, but have remained below the pandemic’s peak earlier in spring.
State health officials confirmed 547 new COVID-19 cases in Washington on Tuesday, and five new deaths.
The update brings the state’s totals to 42,304 cases and 1,404 deaths, meaning about 3.3% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the state Department of Health (DOH). The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Monday. Nationally, COVID-19 has killed more than 136,000 people.
The governor, however, cited an increase recently in cases among younger residents. While they aren’t as prone to serious illness — and thus being hospitalized — they can spread it to older or more vulnerable people.
“Maybe this week and the next week it’s the 20-year-olds, but in weeks three, four and five it’s the parents,” Inslee said. “And in weeks six and seven, it’s the grandparents … that’s when you really get the explosion of the hospitalizations.”
“We think that’s to some degree, what is happening in Arizona and Florida,” he added.
The governor urged people to wear masks and keep social distancing to prevent further spread of the virus.
In one bright spot, Inslee said most residents in Yakima County — one of the hardest-hit regions — are wearing masks and confirmed cases there have declined in recent days.
The governor’s statewide requirement for people to wear masks when they can’t socially distance has “shown early success,” Inslee said.
But rollbacks could come to the four-part reopening plan if new confirmed cases continue to climb, the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive are elevated and if hospitalization rates for the virus start to rise, he said.
No decisions have been made about any rollbacks, but restrictions could potentially be reimposed for bars and indoor seating at restaurants, Inslee said.
Health officials are seeing outbreaks of the virus across Washington, state Health Officer Kathy Lofy said.
They’re being detected in businesses, manufacturing and food-production settings, restaurants, long-term care facilities and some child-care centers, Lofy said in the news conference.
“It is really across the board, unfortunately,” she said.
The announcement comes two weeks after Inslee and state Health Secretary John Wiesman announced a pause on approving any counties hoping to move to the fourth — and least restrictive — phase of the plan.
No county has yet made it to the fourth phase. King, Pierce and Snohomish counties now are in the second phase of the plan. That has allowed for the reopening of a host of businesses — like nail and hair salons and barbershops — and some indoor dining with safety guidelines to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
The pause announced Tuesday would prevent counties from advancing to any new phase in the governor’s four-part plan through at least July 28.
The developments come as some Washingtonians continue to protest the governor’s use of emergency powers to try and curb the global pandemic.
A group Tuesday announced they would seek signatures to qualify an initiative to the Legislature that would curtail the emergency authority that lawmakers long ago gave Washington’s governors.
Among other things, proposed Initiative 1114 would limit a governor’s emergency Proclamations to no longer than 14 days unless state lawmakers then voted to extended them.
Organizers have until Dec. 31 to submit signatures for that proposal. If it qualified with enough valid signatures, the measure then would go before state lawmakers — and likely Washington voters — next year.