It’s been three years since the people of Washington hunkered down in the face of a COVID-19 outbreak that upended society and ushered in debates about responding to the virus that continue today. And while people have returned to in-person work and social life and public-health restrictions have been lifted, the pandemic is still here.
An average of five Washington residents were still dying every day from COVID-19 as recently as late January, according to state health data. The nation is experiencing about 2,200 deaths per week due to the virus, according to Eric Chow of Public Health – Seattle & King County, citing figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while the hospital system is no longer stressed like last winter and the winter before, Chow, who gave a news briefing Tuesday morning about COVID-19, said the pandemic is still being seen locally.
“Over the past week here in King County, someone was hospitalized for COVID-19 every three hours,” said Chow, the agency’s chief of communicable disease and epidemiology. “And there were about 51 deaths from COVID-19 over the past 28 days.”
Like elsewhere, the vast majority of deaths due to COVID-19 have occurred among people aged 65 or older, according to King County data.
As the pandemic gradually recedes from public discussions and regulations, Chow urged people to continue to take advantage of free COVID-19 vaccines and boosters that are still being offered in Washington.
People with vaccinations and natural immunity have some protection against the virus, but COVID-19 still poses a “substantial threat” to a host of individuals, according to Chow. Those include older people and individuals who are immunocompromised or have underlying medical conditions.
Chow also highlighted the instances of “long COVID” where people see lingering symptoms — such as fatigue or heart palpitations — for weeks or months.
“Which are incredibly debilitating to individuals, and have an impact on their quality of life, or the development of health conditions,” he said. “Such as heart attacks and stroke, in the weeks to months after the infection.”
Overall, “Black and Hispanic communities have experienced disproportionately higher risks of acute infection and greater risk of severe disease than white communities,” Chow said, “And as such, it is likely that these racial and ethnic disparities will also be seen in those with long COVID or post-COVID conditions.”
At the pandemic’s outset, Gov. Jay Inslee invoked his executive emergency powers to impose a host of unprecedented public restrictions. Throughout the pandemic, Inslee ordered some of the strictest public-health measures in the nation intended to curb the virus. They included early restrictions on temporarily shutting some businesses deemed nonessential, stringent masking requirements and a vaccine mandate for state employees and health-care workers. Washington has seen fewer deaths per capita than most other states.
The governor lifted the state of emergency in October. And the Department of Health has announced that one of the few remaining restrictions — the mask mandate for health care, prisons and long-term care facilities — will end April 3.
While restrictions have lifted, the state Department of Health is still providing vaccinations through mobile clinics, which are also providing seasonal flu shots, according to DOH spokesperson Raechel Sims. In the coming days those clinics will be held in Seattle, Vancouver, Pasco, Republic, Des Moines, Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham, Ellensburg and other cities. A full schedule is available on DOH’s Care-a-Van website.
Additionally, DOH is still distributing, for free, up to five home COVID tests to state residents, according to Sims. More information about that and about reporting positive results from at-home tests can be found at https://doh.wa.gov/emergencies/covid-19/testing-covid-19.
The state is also offering help through the Care Connect program — such as food assistance and, potentially, financial help — to people who must isolate at home during a COVID diagnosis. Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and need food or other help while isolating can call 1-800-525-0127, then press #.
Last month, President Joe Biden announced that in May he would end the federal emergency declarations that have provided for free COVID-19 tests, vaccinations and antiviral medications. Chow urged residents to make use of those stockpiles by getting a booster shot before the private health care market can begin charging for them.
“This will remain free, even if you don’t have insurance, for as long as the federal government supply lasts,” Chow said. “We anticipate this may be likely through the end of the summer.”
Since that temporary shutdown in spring 2020, Republicans derided the governor’s orders as overreaching and harmful. They called for implementing limits on the emergency powers that the Legislature long ago gave the governor’s office to deal with major emergencies.
For a third year in a row, GOP reform proposals have gone nowhere in the Democratic-controlled state House and Senate. In the current legislative session, House Bill 1535 didn’t get the needed committee hearing and vote to advance to the House floor. It is stalled for the year.
Sponsored by Reps. Chris Corry of Yakima, Peter Abbarno of Centralia and other Republicans, the bill would change the law so that the Legislature in some cases could end a state of emergency declared by the governor.
“Eventually, the memory of the pandemic will fade away, along with the important lessons we learned. We cannot allow history to repeat itself,” said Abbarno in a statement. “We owe it to future generations to find the right balance between the executive’s ability to deal with emergencies and proper oversight from the Legislature. Let’s come together as Washingtonians this session, regardless of party, and do our job as legislators.”