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caption: Shelby Klemmt, left, and Lexi Newell cheers while dining at Gracia on Monday, March 22, 2021, on Ballard Avenue Northwest in Seattle. Beginning Monday, restaurants, retailers, and fitness centers can open with up to 50% capacity as Washington's 39 counties move into the third phase of Gov. Jay Inslee's reopening plan.
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Shelby Klemmt, left, and Lexi Newell cheers while dining at Gracia on Monday, March 22, 2021, on Ballard Avenue Northwest in Seattle. Beginning Monday, restaurants, retailers, and fitness centers can open with up to 50% capacity as Washington's 39 counties move into the third phase of Gov. Jay Inslee's reopening plan.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Surprising day For WA counties on the verge of a phase rollback

We've been hearing for more than a week that King County, and about a dozen other Washington counties, would roll back to Phase 2.

That's because Covid cases and hospitalizations are high enough that they're not meeting the governor's standards for keeping restaurants and other businesses open at 50% capacity.

But counties got a surprise on Tuesday.

The governor is setting a two-week pause on rolling back. He says he will reevaluate the situation in mid-May. KUOW’s Eilis O'Neill told Kim Malcolm what happened.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: This was not what some of us were expecting today. What is going on?

Eilis O’Neil: The governor said that cases are plateauing. It looks like we might have turned the corner on this fourth wave of cases, and more people are getting vaccinated every day. So, it's possible that we won't go back.

Here's what King County's Public Health Officer Jeff Duchin said: “A two-week pause provides time to see more reliably which direction we're heading in, and whether we're turning the corner on a fourth wave, which we very well may be, while we continue to do everything we possibly can to get more people vaccinated, especially younger adults.”

About two-thirds of eligible King County residents have received their first Covid shot. With so many vaccinated, why are cases and hospitalizations so high?

It’s really impressive. Nearly 50% of eligible King County residents are fully vaccinated. We're doing really well on that front, but there are two things happening. The first is that the vaccine rollout prioritized people most likely to die of Covid, not the people most likely to transmit Covid.

Essential workers, a lot of them working in congregate settings like warehouses or restaurants, did not become eligible until recently, and neither did young people living in different kinds of congregate settings, either on Greek Row or with roommates, maybe in their early 20s sharing a house. Those people just became eligible last month and are just getting their first shots now, or might be just coming due for their second shots.

The second thing is the variants. The same behavior that two to three months ago would not have a high risk of transmitting Covid is riskier now. For example, maybe the masking policies and social distancing policies in a certain workplace were working a couple of months ago, but now with these more contagious variants, it's not working anymore, and Covid is spreading more easily. On top of that, some of the variants are more dangerous to young people, so there are rising hospitalizations of young people.

I know a lot of people have gotten started on their vaccinations, but they're still waiting for the second dose. Once those second doses are completed, are we going to be on the other side of this?

It's hard to say because there are so many unknown factors, but it is likely that as more and more people get vaccinated the case counts and hospitalizations will start to come down, and activities like eating in restaurants and going to gyms will start to be safer.

The governor seems to be gambling that in two weeks the situation will look pretty different than it does today, and the counties that are currently in Phase 3 will never need to go back to Phase 2. That does seem like a pretty safe bet.

What do we need to see happen to make sure Inslee’s gamble pays off?

The key to bringing down case counts is getting the last one-third of people in King County who are eligible but have yet to receive their first shot vaccinated.

Here's what Dr. Duchin said about that: “All of us want to avoid a prolonged game of whack-a-mole, with imposing and easing restrictions. Vaccination is the cure for mitigation measure whack-a-mole.”

The people who have cars, and flexible schedules, and time, and wanted to, and were able to spend three to seven hours on the project of getting vaccinated; they've all been vaccinated. Staying open and reopening more will require a continued public health effort to bring vaccines to unvaccinated people where they are, and make it convenient and comfortable for them. The key is reaching the people who aren't necessarily vaccine-hesitant but just haven't gotten vaccinated yet.

And Tuesday we learned that some younger kids might soon be able to get the vaccinations as well.

It looks like the FDA is going to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to 15-year-olds very soon. It could be in the next week or two, which would make another 4% of the population eligible.

With every group of people that becomes eligible, if a big chunk of them gets vaccinated, that reduces not just their individual risk, which is super-important, obviously, but also the risk of the whole population by reducing transmission of the virus.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.