Washington State Remains in Fourth COVID Wave But New Numbers Are 'Hopeful,' Officials Say

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Washington health officials are seeing "hopeful numbers" in COVID-19 case and hospitalization data as the state begins its two-week reopening pause.

But they also say that does not negate the fact the state remains in a fourth wave of infection, with a high rate of hospitalizations, often among people younger than those in previous waves.

"We are balancing reopening, we are balancing vaccinations, we are balancing this race against time and we are balancing COVID fatigue," Dr. Umair Shah, the state's health secretary, said in a Department of Health briefing on Wednesday morning.

Modeling as of April 16 showed that immunity from vaccines has lowered transmission, but COVID transmission was still increasing, Shah said. Daily case counts averaged about 1,300 cases in late April, which is higher than counts during the second wave over the past summer.

Hospitalizations are also up; however, those who are being hospitalized tend to be younger and have shorter stays than those previously hospitalized, said Dr. Scott Lindquist, acting state health officer.

More than 50% of eligible Washington residents have received at least a first dose of the vaccine, and about 39% of eligible residents — about 2.4 million people — are fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, fewer than 5% of residents who received a first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines have missed their second dose, according to DOH. Acting Assistant Health Secretary Michele Roberts said people may be simply forgetting, or not realizing they need a second dose. Others may think that if they missed their second-dose appointment they can't go back, which isn't true.

DOH announced a new COVID-19 vaccine hotline, 833-VAX-HELP, which will help residents find and schedule vaccine appointments. The state is also partnering with the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft to provide free rides to vaccine appointments; starting May 10, those who call the vaccine hotline can receive a code to use on one of the companies' apps.

Uber is also partnering with community health centers throughout the state, according to Dan Laster, director of the COVID-19 Vaccine Action Command and Coordination System, who cited transportation issues as one of the barriers to people getting vaccinated. More sites have also added walk-in appointments, allowing better flexibility, Laster added.

The state will receive nearly 400,000 doses of vaccine next week, with nearly 220,000 doses of Pfizer, 160,000 Moderna doses and 17,000 of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. For the first time, Roberts said, the allocation forecast from the federal government shows the state receiving about the same amount every week through the end of the month, which helps with planning and scheduling.

Earlier this week, the Biden administration announced it would shift how it allocates vaccine, moving from a strict allocation based on state population to sending surplus doses to states needing more to meet demand. Washington officials said they aren't sure yet how this will impact allocation, but noted that it's similar to the change the state recently made to distribute doses based on provider requests, rather than population.

"From our perspective, it helps us get vaccine to where it's needed," said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response.

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