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State eyes guidelines for vaccinated people

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | April 30, 2021 1:05 AM

OLYMPIA — Saying the state is facing a possible fourth wave in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee said his office is working on new guidelines that would allow people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine more leeway to gather in public at events like graduation ceremonies, religious services and sporting events.

Speaking in an online press conference Thursday afternoon, Inslee even suggested vaccination rates may be one way state health officials evaluate counties as they consider which phase of the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan a county should be in.

“That is a possibility going forward,” the governor said in response to a question from a reporter. “We do not want to be in this forever.”

Inslee said the new guidelines would likely come out in mid-May, and would apply to cruises, performing arts events like concerts and plays, graduation ceremonies, and even religious services. He noted Washington State University, for example, will require all students and employees to show proof of vaccination prior to coming on campus this fall.

“I’m supportive of those efforts,” he said.

Currently, the state is evaluating 14 days of new case counts and seven days of hospitalization rates to determine whether a county will remain in Phase 3 or be pulled back to Phase 2 of the state’s recovery plan. A new evaluation of the data is expected Monday, and will be announced on Tuesday.

According to the state metrics in the Roadmap to Recovery plan, counties of 50,000 people or more must maintain a COVID-19 case rate of 200 or fewer per 100,000 residents for the prior 14 days and five or fewer hospitalizations per 100,000 residents for the previous seven days.

According to Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy health secretary heading the state’s COVID-19 response, about “a dozen or so counties” in Washington are in danger of either staying in Phase 2 or being moved back to Phase 2 from Phase 3, which would halve restaurant and public accommodation capacity to 25% from the current 50%.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Washington Department of Health reported Grant County had a new case rate of nearly 256 for the previous two weeks, and a hospitalization rate of eight for the prior seven days.

As he has since the pandemic began more than a year ago, Inslee warned the uptick in cases puts the state’s hospital system at risk of being overwhelmed and unable to provide non-COVID-related health care.

The governor attributed the increase in cases to several things, including prior success in stemming the tide of the pandemic, leading to far lower rates of natural immunity than in places like Florida and Texas, where the pandemic hit harder and earlier, and the arrival of the B.1.1.7 strain, which appears to be more easily spread and strikes younger people particularly hard.

“One-half of hospitalizations are people under 50,” Inslee said.

Inslee encouraged Washington residents to get vaccinated, wear masks in public and wash their hands, as the best ways to end the pandemic quickly.

“The way out of this pandemic is to get the vaccine,” he said.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.