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As King County reopens indoor dining and fitness, Covid-19 experts advise caution

Starting today, the Puget Sound region and other parts of Western Washington are now in Phase 2 of the Gov. Jay Inslee's reopening plan. That means restaurants can have indoor dining at 25% capacity. Gyms can also reopen at 25%. But with a new, more transmissible variant of Covid-19 in King County, is this the right time to reopen?

Janet Baseman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, spoke to KUOW about the matter.

Honestly, I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the state set metrics for reopening and we are meeting those. That's good news. Our cases and hospitalizations are lower now than they were.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, in King County we’re still classified as having a very high level of illness. Could be worse. Some places in the country have an extremely high-level classification of illness. But there are three levels of risk lower than where we are now-- high, medium, and low — and we're not in any of those.

I wish we didn't see some of these things on the horizon that are as concerning. For example, the new [Covid-19] variants floating around that have already been detected here in Western Washington. These could really interfere with our efforts to not only maintain our Phase 2 level activities but to also keep our cases, hospitalizations, and deaths down.

To me, it tells us that whatever we do, we all need to continue to be really vigilant about mask-wearing and keeping our distance from others, and avoiding crowded indoor activities as much as possible.

There's a reason, Kim, why I didn't go into politics. I'll start there. It's really challenging. The problem with setting metrics, which are really important for transparency and communication, is that they're based on the best information we have available at any given time. That information is going to change over time in a situation that's evolving as rapidly as this one is and that involves so much uncertainty with a new virus that we haven't seen before.

I think the reality is that we're on a trajectory that is positive, but it's unlikely to be a straight line toward where we're trying to go.

In addition, we're constantly behind where the virus is, so we just have to be prepared for flexibility and some uncertainty. Meaning that I understand the governor is balancing a lot of different needs and pieces of information, and stakeholders. But if we start to have a problem, because of the new variants spreading the way that some models are suggesting that it will, then we just are going to have to be prepared to dial some of this back, unfortunately.

I think the reality is that we're on a trajectory that is positive, but it's unlikely to be a straight line toward where we're trying to go.

I, like many of my epidemiologist colleagues, am a pretty risk-averse person. I don't feel comfortable with indoor dining for myself yet, or my family.

We're seeing [a cycle of closing businesses as cases go up, and reopening them as cases fall ] happen across Europe as well. It's happening in Southeast Asia as well. This is what was referred to as ‘The Hammer and the Dance’ in an article that was written last spring: Trying to maintain some level of normal activity and seeing cases rise, and then restricting activity and seeing cases go down. This is what a lot of people who understand infectious disease epidemiology anticipated would happen and this is what we're seeing.

As we start to get a greater proportion of the population vaccinated, we start to approach this level of herd immunity, or community level immunity, where we can actually see population-level benefits, where the virus has trouble finding people to infect and then replicate in, because so many people have immunity.

The way I see it playing out is that eventually, it will be a game-changer. Right now, it's a game-changer theoretically, but it's not a game-changer for us yet, because such a small proportion of our population so far has been able to receive the vaccine.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.