OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee warned Thursday of "strong evidence" of a possible fourth COVID-19 wave in Washington, just as residents 16 years and older become eligible for vaccination.
Speaking outside the governor's residence — at his first in-person news conference in Olympia in more than a year — Inslee noted that daily case counts have grown to over 1,000 daily. That's up, he said, from 700 per day in February.
"Unfortunately there is a strong evidence of a fourth wave potentially developing in the state of Washington," said Inslee, who like others gathered Thursday wore a mask. "We cannot and we will not wait until that wave engulfs us."
Standing in front of a banner that read "Take it outside," the governor urged people to stay outside when socializing and working.
"Just take it outside, have your meeting outside, because it is so much safer to be outside," said the governor, adding later: "Take it outside, keep your county open, save yourself, enjoy the outside."
State health officials Thursday reported 1,432 new coronavirus cases and five new deaths, for a total of 5,362 fatalities.
About 23% of state residents have been fully vaccinated.
Even as cases increase, Thursday marked a new milestone in the pandemic's long slog: All Washingtonians 16 years and up are eligible for a vaccine.
Health officials are now distributing an average of 62,000 vaccine doses per day around the state, according to Lacy Fehrenbach, an assistant secretary with the state Department of Health.
Meanwhile, hours are being extended at Washington's five mass-vaccination sites, Inslee said, "into the evening and weekend so that working people don't have to take off time from work."
As coronavirus cases trend up in Washington, Inslee last week ordered three counties — Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman — to tighten restrictions by moving back to the second phase of his "Healthy Washington" plan.
The move — which caps indoor spaces like restaurants and fitness centers at 25% capacity — drew criticism from Republicans, who have implored Inslee to ease restrictions.
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers blasted Inslee's decision to tighten restrictions in the three counties, criticizing the public health metrics — such as cases per 100,000 in counties and hospital data — he used in the decision.
"I think once again we're seeing the governor and Department of Health look at the wrong metrics in how we safely get people back in business," said GOP Senate Minority Leader John Braun of Centralia.
The other 36 of Washington's 39 counties remain in the third phase of the governor's "Healthy Washington" plan. That plan allows, among other things for businesses and indoor spaces to operate at 50% occupancy.
If cases and hospitalizations continue to increase, however, more counties could roll back in May to the second phase.
Even as the number of vaccinated people grows, Inslee said he didn't know when restrictions imposed via his emergency powers may ultimately lift.
Asked whether a certain percentage of Washingtonians need to be vaccinated to broadly lift virus restrictions, or if herd immunity was needed, Inslee also said he didn't know.
"I wish I had an answer to this question," said Inslee. "But the science does not exist on this."