OLYMPIA — Washington state will begin distributing millions of at-home coronavirus tests and masks and will expand vaccination clinics in an effort to blunt the wave of omicron cases, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday.
The governor’s announcement in a news conference came as Washington — like other states — is engulfed in a record wave of COVID-19 cases spurred by the omicron variant.
As state officials work to get masks and tests out in the coming days and weeks, Inslee warned residents that the surge will once again hit hospitals, where workers are burned out after nearly two years of pandemic stress.
“We have serious concerns about our hospitals becoming overwhelmed,” Inslee said. He encouraged residents to seek medical care from their doctors rather than going straight to a hospital with any nonurgent conditions.
The deluge of cases could well cause shortages of workers not just in hospitals but in other industries.
But Inslee reiterated a commitment to making sure students receive in-person learning, saying, “We want to make sure that keeping the schools open remains our paramount obligation here.”
To help, the state is working to expand its Learn to Return program, a measure to help schools provide free COVID diagnostic and screen testing in an effort to help schools respond quickly to cases and avoid shutdowns. State health officials will soon publish additional guidance on that, Inslee said.
The state is in possession of 800,000 at-home tests and expects at least 4.7 million more to arrive over the week or so, according to the governor. State health officials have purchased those from vendors for about $50 million, said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary at the Department of Health.
Those come on top of the 400,000 tests King County announced it was buying Wednesday, which will give the county a total of 700,000. And the numbers announced by Inslee are in addition to any that might come from the federal government, according to the governor’s office.
State officials plan to send 1 million of those tests to schools, and another 1 million to local health districts, in an effort to make sure tests reach underserved communities. For instance, local health departments might hand out tests at homeless shelters, Fehrenbach said at the news conference.
Washington officials are also partnering with Amazon and CareEvolution to create a web portal that people can use to order coronavirus home tests for free. The remaining 3.5 million tests will go toward that effort.
That web portal isn’t operational yet and isn’t expected to become live until mid-January. State officials haven’t yet decided how many tests a state resident can order at one time from that portal, according to Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk.
In the meantime, people should generally not be going to local health districts or emergency rooms looking for coronavirus tests, Fehrenbach said.
The state is also planning to distribute roughly 10 million masks — such as KN95 and surgical masks — from existing supplies. Those masks will be sent in the coming weeks to local communities through emergency management officials, as well as to K-12 schools.
The resources bring needed relief to the state’s constrained supply of masks and testing kits, which have been in high demand for the past several weeks as people readied for holiday gatherings and continued omicron spread.
UW Medicine last week announced it would start limiting coronavirus testing appointments to only people with symptoms or known exposures, not to asymptomatic people, because of “astronomically high” positivity rates that have slowed the testing process. Pharmacies including Walgreens, CVS and Bartell Drugs throughout December also reported challenges in stocking at-home rapid tests, which continue to fly off shelves at a rate that’s outpacing supply. But many drugstores still offer on-site testing.
Inslee on Wednesday also acknowledged the state’s hospitalizations are “inevitably” going to rise as infections continue to spike at record levels. Although Washington’s average number of COVID hospitalizations had dropped to about 60 to 70 per day in late November — after peaking at a seven-day average of 188 hospitalizations in early September — the figures are again climbing up.
As of late December — the state Department of Health’s most recent complete data — Washington had recorded an average of 92 hospitalizations per day.
The state is also hoping to expand the capacity of vaccine sites to help administer more booster shots.
In Auburn, the federal mobile vaccination clinic has tripled its capacity to give shots, to 1,500 per day. Another vaccination site will be coming to Northwest Washington later this month, Inslee said, and more community health clinics are opening around the state to give shots.
National Guard soldiers are also being mustered to help at vaccine sites.
Asked Wednesday about a vaccine mandate for students, which is being considered by state health officials, Inslee said he has some concerns. He cited resistance to vaccines due to misinformation that could potentially cause parents to pull students from classes.
“It may seem absolutely a no-brainer to do this, given the fact that we’re in a pandemic and this vaccine really works,” Inslee said. “But we are concerned if we ended up losing students, who wouldn’t come to school because of that.”