Is it really time to roll back gathering restrictions? Some experts are optimistic about WA moving to Phase 3
In a little more than a week, all of Washington will move to phase 3 of a statewide Covid reopening plan. That means restaurants, gyms, and other indoor facilities will be able to operate at 50% capacity.
But given the current infection rate and emergence of new Covid-19 variants, is now really the time to open up even more?
KUOW host Kim Malcolm spoke with reporter Anna Boiko-Weyrauch for some analysis.
When you heard Governor Inslee was announcing this upcoming move to phase 3, what did you think?
Well, my head damn near split in two, actually, because in the morning on a press briefing, acting state health officer Dr. Scott Lindquist was talking about how high our case rates are, and the fact that there's this new variant of the virus that's been found here.
“I'm concerned,” Lindquist said. “We're at a higher rate post third wave, we're starting to see these variants, including the rare one, the P. 1, and I'm really concerned about where this sets us up for the future.”
And then, in the afternoon, here's what I heard at the governor's press conference:
“We as a state have made such tremendous progress recently, with our case rates and hospitalizations, things are really going in the right direction,” said Nick Streuli, executive director of external affairs in the Office of the Governor.
Wow. Yeah, different messages. Let's put these numbers into context. How are we actually doing right now when it comes to cases?
So those case rates and hospitalizations, they are significantly down from the winter. But if you compare them to previous points in this pandemic, they're not very different from, say, the middle of July — and that's when the governor paused reopening. And now the cases have hit a plateau.
They were declining steadily for weeks. And then they've sort of been stuck at the same level since since the last two weeks in February.
We learned yesterday that there is yet another variant here. Now, this is the one known as P. 1. It was first identified in Brazil. How could that complicate efforts to keep cases from rising again?
Today King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin called it a wild card that could destroy our progress. There's some concern that that variant could reinfect people who already had Covid.
Given all you've told us, I wonder why the state is pushing forward now to reopen even further.
In a word, vaccinations, because there are a lot of people who are at high risk of death or complications who have been vaccinated. And I talked to three experts to get their assessment of the reopening. And I got varying degrees of optimism, actually, and they agree that vaccinations play a huge role.
“I think the time is right,” said Jerry Cangelosi, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, epidemiology, and global health at University of Washington. “Case rates are going down, but case rates are only part of the story.”
Instead, he cited these other factors: the state is testing more, and the percent of tests coming back positive is lower; spring and summer are coming, bringing more favorable conditions to control the spread of the virus; and almost 60% of people 65 and older — most at risk of hospitalization and death — have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine.
“Even if case rates go back up, there won’t be as many deaths as there were prior to the introduction of the vaccine,” Cangelosi said. “Even though the numbers look similar to where they’ve been in the past, everything is different.”
“I’m so happy,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of Health Metric Science at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “We’re heading in the right direction and we need to let the public know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
It’s not time for full capacity at restaurants, for example, but it’s possible to safely accommodate 9,000 people outdoors in large venues — as Phase 3 allows — as long as everyone wears masks and stays apart from each other, Mokdad said.
“It’s all about the capacity of the building,” he said.
Mokdad is not concerned about the reopening and relaxation some of the social distancing mandates, but he does lose sleep over people’s behavior and whether they’ll start relaxing too much and stop wearing their masks, he said.
As for the new variants, they do pose a challenge. But Mokdad is confident that we’ll be able to stay ahead of the variants through vaccinations, he said.
But if everybody crowded indoors without masks, that could hurt the effectiveness of vaccinations and help the virus, said Dr. Joshua Schiffer, Associate Professor in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutch.
“At this point it would be crazy to go to a party with 30 people where nobody’s wearing masks. That is still a recipe for disaster,” he said. There will still be a fourth wave of Covid-19 in King County, according to recent disease modeling by Schiffer and others.
But Schiffer is optimistic that it might be flat and long rather than a sharp peak, he said.
“The more quickly that we can vaccinate people, the less likely that we would have a fourth wave severe enough to necessitate another lockdown and put pressure on the healthcare system. In that respect, I think we’re doing really well.”
As far as the new variants go, Schiffer doesn’t think they’ll be a big player in the fourth wave — unless there’s a very large super-spreader event to “hurdle” them ahead, he said.
Then again, there’s a lot of uncertainty.
“If people really open up too quickly and don’t adhere to masking and the like, we could definitely have a severe wave. On the other hand, if people sort of outperform past behaviors and really stick to their guns, we could actually have barely a fourth wave at all,” Schiffer said. “I think the highest likelihood is somewhere in between.”
The message really seems to be that this really is to a large extent in our hands what we decide to do, you know, and I do have to admit to you, I did feel this surge of happiness.
The governor approved the Mariners' plan to allow 9,000 fans at T Mobile Park when the baseball season starts next month. As someone who's been reporting on this for months, would you go to a Mariners game when the season starts?
All of these decisions are very personal decisions about risk tolerance. I would need two things in order to feel safe. One, I would need to be fully vaccinated, which I'm not because I'm not eligible yet. And two, I would need to know that Covid cases are low enough that I can feel confident that the virus is not likely to be found in this crowd if I'm going to be taking off my mask and drink beer around 9,000 other people.