After more than two years, Gov. Jay Inslee is declaring an end to Washington’s COVID-19 state of emergency.
Inslee made the announcement at a news conference Thursday at the state Capitol, lifting the emergency order he imposed on Feb. 29, 2020, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Ending this order does not mean we take it less seriously or will lose focus on how this virus has changed the way we live. We will continue our commitments to the public’s well-being, but simply through different tools that are now more appropriate for the era we’ve entered,” Inslee said in a statement.
Inslee’s office has gradually rolled back the majority of his 85 COVID emergency orders, including those related to business and restaurant closures, stay-at-home orders, remote learning and limits on large gatherings. Nearly all indoor mask mandates are gone. Vaccine verification requirements have loosened. And while the virus is still circulating and infecting Washingtonians throughout the state, recent COVID trends have been encouraging.
“That was and is our priority — to save lives in the state of Washington,” Inslee said during the news conference. “Each [emergency order] was tailored to do that, and I’m pleased to report they’ve been significantly effective.”
While most of the specific restrictions under the governor’s emergency powers have been lifted, Inslee had been under pressure from Republicans, newspaper editorials and other critics who argued he had maintained his underlying emergency declaration — intended as temporary — for too long.
“The state of emergency could and should have ended long ago,” Republican Sen. John Braun of Centralia said in a statement Thursday. “For a time it was justified, because of what we didn’t know about COVID. Unfortunately, there came a point when Governor Inslee began drifting away from the data and toward other metrics that seemed more political than scientific.”
All remaining restrictions issued by Inslee under the emergency order will be lifted by Oct. 31, according to Inslee’s office.
That includes vaccination mandates for health care and education workers, but those employers will be able to require vaccines if they choose, according to the governor’s office. In the Puget Sound area, UW Medicine, Providence Swedish and Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, among other health care systems, will continue to require COVID vaccinations for employees, according to hospital spokespeople.
It also includes the governor’s emergency order last year requiring COVID-19 vaccines for state employees — a requirement that led to the firing and resignations of hundreds of state workers.
Inslee has announced a plan to make vaccines a permanent condition of employment for state workers, and is now finalizing requirements that will provide incentives, but not a mandate, for booster shots. Details about what types of incentives were not immediately available.
“We want to have healthy people so people don’t miss work,” he said. “The vaccine still remains a very important thing.”
A state Department of Health order requiring face coverings for health care and long-term care settings, as well as some correctional facilities, will remain in place, according to the governor’s office.
Inslee said he was choosing to lift the state of emergency now, in part, because of the wide availability of new COVID treatments and people’s “ability, to a significant degree, to protect themselves.” He included a push for Washingtonians to get their updated omicron-specific booster, which he received Thursday afternoon and became available in the state this week.
“Governor Inslee’s rescission of these remaining emergency orders marks an important transition for the state of Washington, but that does not mean that COVID-19 is not in our state anymore,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah said in a statement Thursday. “We must move forward from a pandemic response to adapting our behaviors to coexist with the COVID-19 virus.”
In Washington, COVID levels have been gradually dropping across all age groups since mid-July, after a spike in cases likely led by the spread of omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. As of late August, the state recorded a seven-day average rate of 97.9 infections per 100,000 people, compared with about 275 per 100,000 in May.
In January, infection rates hit about 1,827 per 100,000 during the winter omicron wave.
Hospitalizations are also down, with an average of about 6 Washingtonians hospitalized per 100,000 as of late August, although the state’s health care systems are still struggling with high patient loads due to delayed care and difficulties discharging less-sick patients to long-term care facilities.
Earlier this week, King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin likened the county’s current COVID hospitalization levels to those expected during a “moderately severe” flu season.
While deaths have also remained relatively low, now at an average of 10 per day throughout the state, Duchin noted that it’s “still a substantial and unwelcome” number.
To date, more than 14,100 people have died in Washington as a result of COVID, according to data tracked by the state Department of Health.
Despite some recent heartening trends, however, those who are unvaccinated, older adults and those with underlying medical conditions are still suffering from the virus, Duchin said.
“Although no one wants to hear it, I don’t like saying it, many don’t want to accept it, it’s clear that COVID-19 is not disappearing,” he said. “It is changing. It appears less severe in important ways, but it’s persistent, it’s insidious and it remains somewhat unpredictable.”