Pandemic blog: Updates for Washington state (May 14-21, 2021)
This post includes updates about Covid-19 in the Seattle area and Washington state.
Need a vaccine?
CovidWa.com: Not an official vaccine finder from the state, but the product of a former Microsoft developer who created a website to more easily find open vaccination appointments.
As of Thursday, May 20, the Washington State Department of Health reports:
- 5,702 Covid-19 related deaths; 394,143 confirmed cases; 33,351 probable cases; and a 1.3% death rate among positive cases.
- Compared to white people and Asian people, the rate of Covid cases is nearly three times higher for Black people, and nearly seven times higher for Latino/x people and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.
- So far, 6,541,234 doses (not total number of people) of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered to Washingtonians. A total of 48.8% of eligible people in Washington state have been fully vaccinated; and 57.5% of eligible people in King County have been fully vaccinated.
FRIDAY, MAY 21
Mariners confirm COVID-19 case
4:50 p.m. — At least one player for the Mariners has tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of tonight's game against the San Diego Padres.
According to reporting by ESPN, representatives for Major League Baseball confirmed that at least one player had tested positive for Covid, with the possibility of another player.
The Mariners confirmed the positive case, and announced an additional four players would be moved onto the team's COVID-19 injured list.
Information about the Mariners team vaccination rates are not publicly available, but the general manager has admitted the team has one of the lowest Covid vaccination rates among all MLB teams.
— Noel Gasca
Covid trends heading down, but some concerns remain
8:15 a.m. — Washington's health officials say that Covid-19 trends are moving in the right direction, down, thanks in large part to more people getting vaccinated.
The latest numbers from the state health department show approximately 38% of all Washingtonians 16 and older are now fully vaccinated.
While Covid case counts are declining statewide, only a few counties like Lewis, Kittitas, Stevens, and Whatcom counties are continuing to see increases. Health officials say transmission rates decreased sharply during the last two weeks of April even though they were still relatively high.
Covid cases are also flattening out among children 9 and younger, but remain highest for people between 20 and 29 years old, followed by ages 10-19 and ages 30-39.
Hospital admissions are also declining, slightly.
A concern is that the case numbers for unvaccinated people between ages 45-64 is about 18 times higher than their vaccinated counterparts. For people ages 65 and older, the hospital admission rate is about 11 times higher among unvaccinated people compared to their vaccinated counterparts. These numbers are why local health experts are urging people to keep wearing masks and maintain social distancing — they want the numbers to keep going down.
— Angela King
Another round of unemployment fraud hits Washington
8 a.m. — Washington state is being hit by a second round of unemployment fraud. The Employment Security Department says it first saw the new suspicious activity during the first week of May, but officials say the the crooks aren’t getting away with as much money.
The Seattle Times reports that scammers are not as successful this time around because of new fraud controls that were put in place, following last year's massive theft.
The Employment Security Department credits the new security measure for the drop in new fake claims.
Washington state has recovered about half of the $650 million in fake claims that were filed in 2020. One person accused of taking part in that fraud ring is now facing charges.
— Angela King
Sweet deal for Greenwood vaccine clinic
7:45 a.m. — North Seattle residents who need a Covid shot will have easy access this weekend thanks to a popup clinic Saturday. And local shops are sweetening the deal for early birds.
This time its in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood, outside the Flying Bike Brewery Saturday afternoon, between 3-7 p.m.
The brewery is offering a free pint to anyone who gets their shot there, and Bluebird Ice Cream is giving out free ice cream to the first 75 people who get vaccinated.
All three vaccines will be available. The Seattle Fire Department will administer the doses.
So far, Seattle reports it has given out more 210,000 doses since January 14.
— Angela King
Washington to start compliance checks on bars, marijuana shops again
7 a.m. — It's another sign of things trending toward normalcy — Washington is sending underage kids into bars to conduct compliance checks.
State regulators are going to start checking in on liquor stores and pot shops across the state again, after on-site compliance checks were put on hold after the pandemic first struck in 2020.
The checks usually involve sending an underage person into a bar or shop to try to buy alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco.
Officials have determined it's again safe and necessary to do inspections.
— Paige Browning
THURSDAY, MAY 20
Mass vaccination sites set to close, vaccine outreach will hit the road
4:13 p.m. — Just four months after opening the first mass vaccination sites in Washington, the state's department of health has announced they intend to transition resources from stationary vaccination sites to mobile vaccination clinics.
“Since opening January 26, our four state-led mass vaccination sites have administered nearly 300,000 doses of vaccine,” said Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah.
The department says they plan to close the mass vaccination sites in Ridgefield and Kennewick on May 28. The DOH will also "transition leadership" of the Wenatchee site to the Chelan-Douglas Health District.
The Spokane vaccination site will remain open.
By shifting the vaccination effort to to mobile vaccination clinics, the DOH says the state will have a better chance at reaching people who have experienced barriers in vaccine access, and they'll be able to "help distribute life saving-shots more equitably and conveniently."
According to data published by the DOH on May 17, 38.2% of the state's total population has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
— Noel Gasca
Congress passes bill allowing cruise ships to bypass Canada en route to Alaska
1 p.m. — Congress has passed a bill that would allow large cruise ships to skip Canada while traveling between Washington State and Alaska. The Senate has also passed a bill, and the Anchorage Daily News reports that President Biden is expected to sign it.
The border between Canada and the United States remains closed as the pandemic is ongoing. Large cruise ships often make stops at Canadian ports while traveling between Washington and Alaska. But the legislation allows the large cruise ships to keep operating and bypass Canadian ports.
Norwegian Cruise Lines has already started selling tickets sailings out of Seattle for the summer season.
— Dyer Oxley
King County health department maintains mask recommendation, even for fully-vaccinated people
Noon — Whether or not you are fully vaccinated, King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin says you should keep your mask on indoors.
That is now Public Health - Seattle & King County's official stance on the mask matter. It counters the CDC's current guidance that fully-vaccinated people can nix their masks indoors and outdoors in most situations.
“Continued use of face masks for everyone five years of age and older within indoor public spaces is reasonable and necessary in King County to reduce the risk for Covid-19 transmission until more of the population is protected through vaccination and Covid-19 disease rates decline,” the health department's current directive states.
Duchin further encourages local businesses to maintain mask requirements for indoors.
"Some may wonder why they should wear a mask if they are vaccinated, especially since we agree that Covid-19 vaccines give high protection against infection and spreading the virus, and unvaccinated people are the ones at risk to acquire and spread Covid-19. It's because we have no way to know who is vaccinated and who isn't, and it's impractical for businesses to determine that. If unvaccinated people do not wear masks, the risk for Covid-19 spread increases. From a practical and community health perspective, the most reliable way to ensure everyone is safe is for everyone to wear a face mask in indoor public spaces for a few more weeks, until we get vaccination rates higher and disease rates lower.”
The directive will remain in effect until King County reaches a level of 70% vaccination among people ages 16 and older.
— Dyer Oxley
Vaccinated warehouse workers at Amazon no longer have to wear masks
11 a.m. — Fully-vaccinated warehouse workers at Amazon will no longer have to wear masks indoors , except as required by law. That's Amazon's latest mask policy that will go into effect Monday, May 24.
CNBC reports that employees have to upload their vaccine information to an internal employee portal before they can go mask-free.
Amazon will maintain all other pandemic safety protocols, such as hand washing, sanitizing, and social distancing. Amazon hasn't officially required employees to get vaccinated, but has encouraged its workers to get the shots. It has even offered bonuses up to $80. New hires can get $100 if they show proof of vaccination.
Other companies like Costco, Walmart, and Starbucks are now following the newly updated CDC mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people.
— Angela King
Reminder: Masks required at Sea-Tac Airport
10 a.m. — Sea-Tac Airport officials want to remind travelers that they still have to wear a mask at the airport and when they fly.
The message is in response to the CDC's current guidelines that say fully-vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks in most situations, indoors and outdoors.
The airport is gearing up for another busy holiday weekend with Memorial Day coming up on May 31. Sea-Tac Airport is expecting the largest crowds since the pandemic began.
— Angela King
Boeing's Washington worksites to continue wearing masks, for now
9 a.m. — Boeing workers in Washington state will have to continue masking up, regardless of their vaccination status, for now.
The company announced it will drop the mask mandate at some work sites across the country for those who can prove their fully vaccinated against Covid-19. That policy goes into effect Monday.
But in Washington state, Boeing workers will still have to wear their masks.
— Angela King
WEDNESDAY, MAY 19
Coming soon: state guidance on wearing masks
2:30 pm-- Health officials say there's been confusion since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on face masks last week.
Some businesses have stopped requiring face coverings indoors, while others continue to enforce it.
Washington will soon clarify the rules with additional guidance for the state.
In the meantime, “respect the rules of the room you’re in," said Secretary of Health Umair Shah. "If you walk into an establishment, and they say and they say we’re requiring you to wear a mask, that you should respect that rule.”
Shah also recommends masking for families with young children who aren’t able to get vaccinated.
The new guidelines, which will affect workplaces and businesses across the state, are expected to come out later this week.
~Ruby de Luna
Health officers urge people to keep wearing masks, vaccinated or not
1 p.m. — Snohomish County Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters said he expects that any confusion about pandemic guidelines will be worked out within days.
Until then, Spitters suggests erring on the side of mask wearing.
"Until we reach increased levels of vaccination coverage and further reduce cases to a level that permits us to safely relax prevention measures for all, mask up until you get vaccinated and get vaccinated as soon as possible," Spitters said.
King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin is now saying he's "strongly encouraging" all county residents continue to wear masks in indoor public spaces. That's for people both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
He's also strongly encouraging that businesses continue their policies that customers and workers wear masks inside.
Last week, the CDC loosened its federal guidance to say fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in most indoor and outdoor situations. Exceptions to this rule are for hospitals, airports, buses, and other crowded, vulnerable situations.
As of Wednesday, all Washington counties are in Phase 3 which allows for 50% capacity in shops and restaurants. About 47% of eligible people in Washington have been fully vaccinated.
— John O'Brien
New help arrives for people behind on rent in King County
Noon — There's new help for low-income King County residents who haven't been able to pay their rent during the pandemic.
Tenants can now apply to receive a share of $145 million worth of federal stimulus money. The money will go directly to landlords and recipients will be chosen lottery style, every week. The money can also cover unpaid utility bills.
The Seattle Times is calling this the largest county rental-assistance effort so far. It is estimated that about 89,475 households in the Seattle metro area (including Bellevue and Tacoma) are behind on rent.
Individuals who make less than $40,500 annually, and a family of four that earns just under $58,000, can qualify for the program. Participants will not be asked about immigration status.
— Angela King
Man charged in Washington unemployment scam denied bail
10 a.m. — The man accused of stealing the identities of more than 100 Washingtonians to scam more than $350,000 in fake unemployment claims was in court Wednesday morning and was denied bail.
Abidemi Rufai, 42, was charged over the weekend. He has denied involvement in the transactions.
Local officials are asking that Rufai be held in custody until trial in federal court in Tacoma. They argued in court that he is an extreme flight risk.
The Seattle Times reports that he was also a government official who worked on housing for the state of Ogun in Nigeria. A spokesperson from Ogun says he has now been suspended from his post.
Rufai also ran for Nigerian House of Representatives in 2019. His campaign flyers stated: “Ready and Committed to Serve with Trust and Ethics.” He also reportedly owns a sports betting company called Ecobet.
Thieves filed approximately $650 million worth of fake claims with the state employment security department last year. About half of that has since been recovered.
— Angela King
All of Washington is now in Phase 3, leading up to June 30 reopening
8 a.m. — All of Washington is now in Phase 3 of the state's reopening plan.
Pierce, Ferry, Cowlitz, and Whitman Counties were allowed to move up a tier on Tuesday. The entire state is slated to reopen on June 30.
Meanwhile, we're still waiting to find out if King County will adopt stronger mask guidelines for fully-vaccinated people.
The CDC announced last week that those who are vaccinated don't have to mask-up indoors or outdoors, except in certain situations like in hospitals, airports, on buses, etc. But King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin says he thinks that decision was a little premature.
The county health department says it will make an announcement about this issue sometime this week.
— Angela King
TUESDAY, MAY 18
Seattle Pride announces fall reunion
6:47 p.m. — After cancelling all in-person Pride events for two years in a row due to the pandemic, Seattle Pride has announced it's first in-person event.
With the theme "All Together Now" organizers are planning a "fall reunion" that will be smaller than the parade and festival, but will still give LGBTQIA+ community members the opportunity to reconnect.
From Oct. 9-10, participants will be able to take a self-guided tour through Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods to experience a variety of activities and performances. Participants will also receive a passport that they can use to collect stamps for a chance to win prizes.
Organizers of the event say they will structure the weekend in adherence to public health protocols, with specific details announced this summer.
Seattle Pride announced in April that they would move all of this year's events online.
PHOTOS: Seattle Schools hosting vaccine clinics for students
1 p.m. — Seattle Public Schools will be hosting more than 50 Covid-19 vaccine clinics for middle and high school students in the coming weeks.
Clinics started Tuesday at Ballard High School, The Center School, Franklin High School, Lincoln High School, Roosevelt High School, and West Seattle High School.
Vaccine clinics are slated for 39 different school campus locations. Students need to bring a signed parental consent form.
Find a complete list of Seattle Schools vaccination sites and consent forms for students here.
Students will receive the Pfizer vaccine which has now been approved for children as young as 12. They can get their second shot at the same location at a later time.
The hope is to get students and teachers vaccinated for in-person graduations and ahead of the fall when the district will restart full-time, in-person classes.
— Angela King
Local health officials urge people to keep their masks on, even if they are vaccinated
Noon — There's a little tug-of-war happening between official pandemic guidance locally and nationally.
The CDC's current guidance states that fully-vaccinated people can go maskless in most indoor and outdoor situations, except for hospitals, public transit, airports, and other crowded, vulnerable settings.
But King County Health Officer Jeff Duchin is urging people to keep their masks on for the time being, and argues that the guidance should be based on local vaccination and infection rates.
Public Health Seattle & King County is echoing that message, noting on Twitter that "Over the weekend, the CDC Director clarified that ending indoor mask mandates should be linked to local Covid-19 & vaccination coverage rates."
— Dyer Oxley
Cheers to being vaccinated — free drink for fully-vaccinated customers
11 a.m. — People who show they're fully vaccinated against Covid-19 could potentially get a free drink at their local bar or restaurant.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board announced Monday that it will temporarily allow establishments, or non-industry sponsors, to offer one drink on the house. The offer lasts until June 30, when the Governor's Office expects to reopen the entire state.
The customer must show proof they have been vaccinated (first or second dose). The bar or restaurant can set its own timeline after a dose for the free drink.
— Angela King
No to masks, yes to special deals and prizes for fully-vaccinated Mariners fans at T-Mobile Park
10 a.m. — The Mariners are saying that fully-vaccinated fans can attend games at T-Mobile Park without masks.
Partially vaccinated, or unvaccinated, fans still have to wear a mask.
Mariners fans will have to show proof that they're completely vaccinated against Covid-19. Fans who show proof will receive a wrist band. Proof includes a vaccination card, a photo of a vaccination card, or a record from a healthcare provider.
The new mask policy went into effect on Monday. Fans who are not wearing masks, and who are not wearing a wristband, may be asked for proof of vaccination.
The Mariners are still selling tickets for special sections just for fully-vaccinated attendees.
And the team is offering further incentives for fully-vaccinated fans for their May 17-19 games against the Detroit Tigers.
- There will be dedicated vaccine-only entry lanes at right and center field gates. Vaccinated fans will also get exclusive access to the T-Mobile Pen, and Trident Deck on the View Level.
- Fully-vaccinated fans will also get 20% off food and beverages and regular priced merch at the Mariners Team Store (except for autographed and game used items).
- And finally, vaccinated fans will be eligible for random prizes, such as an ALaska Airlines roundtrip for two; a Microsoft Xbox; Costco gift cards; a $500 gift card to Nordstrom; lunch at a Nordstrom restaurant, and more.
— Angela King, Dyer Oxley
Seattle's street cafes will last a little longer than pandemic restrictions
9 a.m. — It looks like those street cafes that popped up in Seattle during the pandemic are going to be sticking around for at least another year.
“The street-use permits have been critical in helping Seattle’s diverse restaurants make it through the pandemic," said Steve Hooper, president of the Seattle Restaurant Alliance. "This extension gives our restaurants the certainty to plan ahead and invest in their outdoor spaces."
The Seattle City Council voted Monday to extend a pilot program that allows restaurants and other business to apply for free street permits until May of 2022.
The Seattle Restaurant Alliance says this will help owners stay in business. And City Councilman Dan Strauss, who introduced the measure, says he intends for it to eventually become permanent.
“Outdoor dining was a lifeline for many restaurants through the pandemic, and also created vibrancy in our city when we needed it most,” Hooper said. “As we look toward a recovery, we know we have a long road ahead — and extending outdoor dining options will help tremendously.”
— Angela King
MONDAY, MAY 17
T-Mobile Park drops masks for vaccinated fans
4:39 p.m. — Fully-vaccinated Mariners fans are no longer required to wear masks at T-Mobile Park.
The team announced that starting tonight, fans who show proof of vaccination when they enter the ballpark will receive a wristband that verifies that they are permitted to go mask-free.
Fans will be able to show their proof of vaccination and pick up their wristband at the center field or right field gates, or when they check in at the vaccine-only seating sections.
The new rules about masking come days after the Centers for Disease Control announced new guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals, which generally encouraged resuming most activities without a mask .
The team also announced that vaccine-only seating sections will continue to be available at home games through June 2.
— Noel Gasca
All Washington counties in Phase 3 on Tuesday
1 p.m. — All counties in Washington state are expected to move into Phase 3 of the state's reopening plan on Tuesday.
That's according to Governor Jay Inslee who also said last week that he aims to reopen the entire state on June 30, if not sooner.
Washington could reopen sooner if 70% of eligible people get vaccinated against Covid-19.
But the governor also warns Washington could fall back if the state's ICU capacity reaches 90%. At this point though, businesses in all counties will be able to operate with a maximum 50% indoor capacity under Phase 3.
— Angela King
Mask policy switched up in Bellevue’s shopping core
Noon — Bellevue’s massive shopping and office hub is preparing for a time when customers and employees go maskless.
The company behind many of downtown Bellevue’s shopping and office buildings is changing its mask policy, and is leaving it up to businesses to decide their own stance and enforcement.
According to a May 15 email from the Kemper Development Company to its tenants, “businesses will have the right to require employees and visitors wear masks” but further states that “as you begin to see mask-less individuals in the common areas, please be understanding."
The email was sent to businesses within the Bellevue Collection, which includes Bellevue Square, Lincoln Square, and surrounding retail and office centers in downtown Bellevue. The email notes that the state of Washington is following current CDC guidelines which states that fully-vaccinated people can go without masks indoors and outdoors, in most situations (exceptions for hospitals, buses, airports, and other vulnerable settings).
The email to tenants states: "Effective immediately, The Bellevue Collection including Bellevue Place Properties, has updated the mask policy from 'masks required' to 'masks encouraged' for anyone in the shopping center and building common areas. It will be up to each tenant to determine their own mask policy and any enforcement inside their leased premises."
— Dyer Oxley
Businesses have mixed reactions to easing mask guidance
11 a.m. — Washington state is starting to ease pandemic restrictions, starting with masks. And the responses from businesses are mixed.
Customers at Trader Joe’s stores won’t have to mask up while shopping. But they’ll need proof of vaccination.
At QFC, face coverings are still required for now.
Expect the same mosaic of policies at restaurants.
Melissa Miranda, chef owner of Musang on Beacon Hill, says they were caught off guard by the state loosening restrictions. For now, she says their mask requirements will stay in place to protect her staff and their families.
“I’m still fearful there’s going to be a lot of folks that are just a little bit reckless and won’t have that kind of respect or understanding towards the people who are putting their livelihoods on the lines,” Miranda said.
State officials are aiming for full reopening by the end of June.
They say it may even come sooner if 70% or more of Washington residents are fully vaccinated. So far, more than 57% have received their first dose.
— Ruby de Luna
Local health officials urge pandemic precautions despite current CDC guidance
10 a.m. — While the CDC's current pandemic guidance generally states that fully vaccinated people can nix their masks outdoors or indoors, local health officials are urging people to base their decisions on local conditions.
King County Public Health Officer Jeff Duchin is on the board of directors of the Infectious Disease Society of America. The IDSA notes that the rate of vaccinations and infections across the United States can vary widely. Therefore, it promotes that not all areas are equally as safe or dangerous.
According to a statement from the ISDA: "The CDC recommendations should not send the message that the pandemic is over .... the recommendations make no change to mask-wearing guidance in health care settings, schools and public high-traffic areas including airports, as well as on airplanes, buses and other forms of public transportation. Less than half of the U.S. population is fully immunized. Increased vaccinations will be necessary to control and finally end the pandemic."
The ISDA recommends that local businesses and organizations go further than the CDC guidance and base pandemic precautions on local conditions, such as the rate of infection and vaccination rates.
At the same time, Washington's Department of Health is suggesting that people should still wear masks, even if they are vaccinated.
— Dyer Oxley
Signs that Seattle is easing up on precautions at Green Lake
9 a.m. — The scene at Seattle's Green Lake Park was pretty different this weekend, compared to how it's been over much of the pandemic.
It was busy and crowded, but very few park-goers were wearing masks.
Last week, the CDC announced that fully-vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor situations.
Alexandria Cox was sitting unmasked in the middle of a large grassy area at Green Lake. She said she felt OK about being around so many people with their faces uncovered.
"Because we're in the park and there's air, I'm not as concerned as I would be if I was in like an enclosed restaurant or like a shopping center or something like that," Cox said.
Cox just got her second dose of the Covid vaccine.
But she said the paths at Green Lake were crowded yesterday and that she'd want to wear her own mask and try to stay six feet from everyone else.
— Eilis O'Neill
Arrest made in Washington employment fraud case
8 a.m. — Authorities have made an arrest in relation to the massive employment fraud scheme that struck Washington state during at the start of the pandemic.
The Seattle Times reports that man was arrested at a New York airport on Friday as he was en route to leave the country. He appeared in court on Saturday.
Abidemi Rufai, of Nigeria, allegedly used 100 Washington identities to fraudulently claim unemployment benefits, amounting to about $300,000. Rufai seems to be an outlier in the overall fraud case — he happened to be in the United States while the schemes were carried out, however, many of the fraudulent claims originated from within Nigeria.
Rufai is also suspected in alleged fraud schemes in Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
According to The Times, Tessa Gorman, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington said “This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud.”
Nearly $647 million in fraudulent claims were mad in Washington state in 2020 as the pandemic prompted massive layoffs. Not all claims were paid, however. The state has recovered about $370 million.
— Dyer Oxley
FRIDAY, MAY 14
Would you like fries with that vaccine?
5:56 p.m. — The University of Washington is offering a tasty and iconic incentive to getting vaccinated at its next vaccine pop-up.
According to reporting by The Daily, UW students will get a free Dick's hamburger after receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at Madrona Hall next Monday, May 18, and next Tuesday, May 19.
Students will be able to walk up to the pop-up between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Appointments can also be made through Safeway's website.
Students who would prefer to get the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines can still get vaccinated at UW Medical Center Montlake.
The UW announced earlier this month that all students returning to campus for the 2021-2022 school year in the fall would need to be vaccinated.
— Noel Gasca