Lewis County and much of Washington state avoided tighter COVID-19 restrictions Tuesday as Gov. Jay Inslee announced a two-week pause on Washington’s Roadmap to Recovery reopening plan.
Without the announcement, Lewis County was on its way to be demoted to Phase 2, conferring stricter requirements on restaurants, gatherings and other establishments. But state officials reported this week that the fourth wave of infections seen across the state appears to have reached a plateau in recent days.
That analysis, paired with ongoing efforts to vaccinate Washingonians against the respiratory disease, means the state is at an “intersection of progress and failure,” Inslee said.
“There is reason to have hope that, if we were to continue our progress on vaccinations, that some time in the summer we could potentially have much more normal activities in our state,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Lewis County had a case rate of 204.4 per 100,000 and a hospitalization rate of 7.5 per 100,000. Meanwhile, Cowlitz, Pacific and Pierce counties all have case rates above 300.
Hospitalizations across the state are on the rise, officials reported, although the death rate has decreased “dramatically” thanks to vaccinations, Inslee said.
The pause means the state will keep Cowlitz, Pierce and Whitman counties in Phase 2, with tighter restrictions, although Inslee noted that local boards of health can impose their own restrictions as well. Ferry County recently moved itself to Phase 2 amid a surge in cases.
“It’s our expectation that responsible owners will follow these requirements. And fortunately, the vast majority of our business owners have done that,” Inslee said. “But not everyone has, unfortunately. And I do want folks to know that we take these protocols very seriously.”
The governor added that while most businesses are complying with restrictions, the ones who have not have together racked up $7.3 million in fines.
While the pause may be good news for local businesses, Lewis County Public Health Director JP Anderson on Tuesday said the county-by-county phased approach is no longer a “helpful component” in the fight against the coronavirus.
“I think now that we have the vaccine, the county-by-county, phased approach can feel punitive,” Anderson said. “And I think that it’s hard to manage two issues as complex as vaccines and phases with the capacity we have at governmental public health.”
He noted that while “interventions and precautionary measures” will be critical moving forward, the pandemic is not a county-by-county issue, and “the phased approach to it, I think, has less and less utility.”
Inslee seemed to speak directly to that criticism in his announcement earlier in the day.
“We don’t look at this as punishment or reward,” he said. “We look at this as a practical way to save lives.”
Senate Minority Leader John Braun, a Republican from Centralia whose district includes much of Lewis County, also weighed in, arguing that hospital capacity and mortality rates are a better metric than the ones used in the state’s Roadmap to Recovery plan and pointing to “phase-to-phase whiplash.”
“Governor Inslee seemed to focus more today on increasing access to vaccinations, and considering how many people want the shot, that’s a better path than punishing employers and others who are complying with the rules,” he said in a prepared statement.
The pandemic has so far killed 5,500 people in Washington, although officials pointed to promising metrics in the state’s vaccination efforts. Approximately 54% of eligible residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 38% are fully vaccinated.
On Tuesday, officials stressed that vaccines will be the path out of the pandemic.
“If you have gotten vaccinated, your job is not done,” said Secretary of Health Umair Shah. “Please help someone else get vaccinated as well. We need to be in this together.”
Inslee said he supported “incentives” for the vaccine, pointing specifically to universities across the state announcing they will require COVID-19 vaccines for most students, as many schools already do for diseases like measles. Recently, Centralia College said it wouldn’t require proof of vaccination, although that could change.
Other incentives include the state’s updated guidance, which would allow spectator events to create sections specifically for vaccinated attendees. Both Braun and Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, critiqued the idea, although Walsh went further in comparing it to “Jim Crow-like forced segregation.”
Inslee also pointed to decreased vaccine demand, something Anderson harped on Tuesday in a meeting with county commissioners.
“It does hurt for public health officials, to be totally frank, right now, having gone through what we’ve gone through in the last year and a half,” he said. “To have (vaccines) sit on the shelf right now, it’s a bit confounding for us.”
Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, joined Inslee and said the vaccination efforts will ultimately help the state avoid “mitigation measure whack-a-mole.” He also asked business owners to focus on air quality to prevent COVID-19 transmission indoors, pointing to the agency’s updated guidance.
Tuesday’s announcement was not the first last-minute change in the Roadmap to Recovery plan. Last time officials evaluated counties, requirements were altered to make it easier for counties to maintain their Phase 3 status. Tuesday’s change in plans was anticipated by some Lewis County officials, who expected the state Department of Health to allow Lewis County to remain in Phase 3 despite its metrics.