OLYMPIA — Looking ahead at the fall and winter — seasons known for spikes in respiratory illness — Washington is in a much different place than it was a year ago, health officials said Thursday.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are down, with only about 7% of hospital beds in the state occupied by COVID patients, and the tools and treatments needed to fight the virus are much more readily available.
In the past six months alone, the situation in Washington has "absolutely improved," said Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah.
"We are, without a doubt, in a markedly different place than we were in early 2020," Shah said.
But the fight is not over, he said.
There is always the possibility of a new COVID-19 variant that could send case rates back up, especially as immunity from vaccines wanes, said Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, the department's chief science officer.
Shah said the department continues to urge COVID-19 vaccinations, boosters and masks in some settings. Masks are still required in health-care settings and correctional facilities. That mandate will exist past the end of the state of emergency, which is set to lift Oct. 31.
The mandate was an order from the secretary of health, not the governor, Shah said. As the state enters respiratory virus season, he said the state is "simply not there yet" to remove those face covering requirements.
Still, the end of Washington's COVID-19 state of emergency, which Gov. Jay Inslee announced earlier this month, marks a transition period for the state Department of Health.
"While the emergency phase of COVID-19 may be ending, we know COVID-19 is still very much with us in this state," Shah said.
The emergency declaration allowed the Department of Health to mobilize quickly and build tools and programs to help inform people about the disease, said Lacy Fehrenbach, chief of prevention, safety and health.
Moving forward, she said the department's work will focus more on monitoring the healthcare system, providing testing and personal protective equipment, and watching for any new variant.
Along with COVID-19 and a likely uptick in influenza cases as the weather changes, the department is also monitoring another outbreak: monkeypox.
As of Thursday, Washington has had 556 total cases of monkeypox, including 15 that resulted in hospitalizations.
Symptoms of monkeypox can include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion and respiratory symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the most common and recognizable symptoms is a pimple-like rash on many parts of the body. It's often spread through skin-to-skin contact.
Though cases are going down, Kwan-Gett said it's still too early to tell whether the outbreak is over.
Health officials remain very encouraged that new cases seem to be slowing, he said, but "it's critical that we don't remain complacent."