(RICK BANNON/Centralia Chronicle)
State health officials and Gov. Jay Inslee are asking for Washington residents to keep preventative measures in mind as fall leads to more indoor activity, noting a recent plateau of COVID-19 spread as cause for concern that the colder months could lead to another wave of the ongoing pandemic.
Inslee hosted a press conference on Thursday, Oct. 1, where he addressed the need for the state to continue with preventative measures toward the end of the year. Though the majority of the conversation related to Boeing’s recent decision to move production of its 787 aircraft to South Carolina, which was something the governor was particularly displeased with, Inslee spoke about “concerning” trends in the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Inslee said that the current spread of COVID-19 has plateaued following a two-month decline and is beginning to trend upward. During an update with the media the day prior to Inslee’s press conference, Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said the apparent plateau in cases was concerning, mirroring the governor’s concerns with regard to people spending more time indoors during the colder months.
Regarding causes for the plateau, Wiesman said that although the Labor Day holiday and gatherings, return of students to college campuses and time spent indoors due to smoke from wildfires were all in the mix for potential causes in sustained case rates, it was hard to tell what effects each one had individually.
At the press conference, Inslee said the night prior the Washington State Department of Health was informed of an outbreak associated with students returning to housing on and off campus at the University of Washington.
While transmission among young adults is a chief concern, the spread among children heading back into school buildings does not appear to be as dangerous to increasing outbreaks, relatively speaking. During the update from health officials Washington State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said recent research showed younger children’s rate of infection was about half that of older youth.
Lofy said it was “certainly possible” that students returning to in-person instruction would not lead to significant increases in COVID-19 cases as long as guidelines on physical distancing, face coverings and screening students for symptoms were in practice.
Wednesday’s update from health officials also covered new developments in testing and the planned distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. Wiesman said the state Department of Health has been planning for vaccine distribution, in part by surveying what healthcare providers have for storage of a vaccine. He said the department was “enrolling” providers into a distribution program, though vaccines would be given to providers directly from the federal government, with the state health department informing the needs of those providers.
Wiesman said the Department of Health was not planning on purchasing deep-freezing storage for providers used to hold the vaccine, adding that likely it was the large institutions who had that type of storage already on hand.
Washington State Health Care Authority Deputy Chief Medical Officer Charissa Fotinos touched on the use of rapid antigen tests, which she said had a number of advantages including the ability for individuals to “self-swab,” eliminating the need for personal protective equipment for an outside tester.
Fotinos said there were remaining issues such as the test type’s effectiveness in diagnosis on asymptomatic individuals. Her concern was the potential for false positives and missing diagnoses, something Lofy later added that she had heard reports of happening. Lofy said currently all positives are treated as real from an infection control standpoint.
Inslee’s senior policy advisor Reed Schuler said the governor’s office mirrored Fotinos’ statements on the advantages of antigen tests as well as the issues regarding accuracy that still needed to be addressed.
During Thursday’s press conference Inslee pointed to “great progress” in some aspects of reopening that have already taken place, mentioning agritourism, bowling alleys, wedding parlors and the transitioning of some school districts to allow students back into buildings among others. He said the long-term outlook on COVID-19 was still uncertain given the unpredictability of what will happen in the fall as colder weather keeps more Washingtonians inside.
“Now is the time to double-down on the virus,” Inslee said. He acknowledged a sense of fatigue among those in the state having to maintain the restrictions, now in place for more than six months, though he stressed a need to “up our game” to prevent a resurgence as more activities move indoors in the fall and winter.
Inslee believes Washingtonians have done a good job in behaviors in communal spaces, which he said has kept Washington among the top states for controlling its COVID-19 outbreak. He pointed to residences as being the next area of focus, noting the need to continue social distancing and mask-wearing even during cross-household get-togethers inside.
“These are new … habits, new ways of socializing,” Inslee said. “If we do them, we’re going to stay on top of this virus. If we don’t, we face real danger.”
During Wednesday’s media update, Wiesman acknowledged that counties’ ability to move through phases of the state’s “Safe Start Washington” plan remained in a pause, initially put in place back in July. He said the state continues to evaluate new statistics on COVID-19 spread daily, though current signs don’t point to further reopening.
“For right now we think staying where we are is where we need to be,” Wiesman said.