As Winter Approaches, Health Officials Likely Won't Lift Pandemic-Related Restrictions Anytime Soon

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OLYMPIA — State health officials won't be lifting pandemic-related mandates anytime soon, but Gov. Jay Inslee hinted Thursday at what the end might look like.

The biggest things Inslee is looking for before restrictions can be lifted are higher statewide vaccination rates, lower hospitalization rates and lower transmission rates.

But he said he is always looking at a number of factors, including the number of people in intensive care units, the progress of any medicine that would fight COVID-19 and the statewide epidemiological curve for cases and hospitalizations — which is sitting at a similar level to the peak of the third wave last winter.

Inslee told reporters Thursday the state continues to work toward the point where restrictions are lifted, but "I can't tell you when that would be."

"One thing I do know: If people get vaccinated, that day gets closer," Inslee said.

Currently, 61% of the state's total population is fully vaccinated, and with children ages 5 to 11 now eligible for vaccination, this rate can go up significantly in the coming months.

Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah echoed Inslee's comments, adding he really wants to see a sustained low hospital rate before loosening restrictions.

Shah said Thursday he is not recommending to the governor that the mask mandate be lifted anytime soon. He said he did not feel comfortable rolling back requirements currently in place, especially with the holidays approaching.

"It's too soon, and we've got too much at stake," Shah said.

The state has seen a downward trend in cases over the last few months, but as that downward trend slows and winter approaches, Shah said he worries numbers could bounce back up.

While the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 has decreased from the peak of the fifth wave, hospital occupancy has not. Since late August hospital occupancy statewide has remained at or above 90%, which is nearly 10% higher than any other time earlier this year.

The biggest thing the public can do right now is get vaccinated, and if you are vaccinated, get a booster shot when eligible, Shah said.

"If you do have waning immunity, then the booster really prevents you from having a breakthrough infection," he said.

Something that may help get numbers down is President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for private workers. The mandate, which was written by OSHA, requires private companies of 100 or more people to require their employees to be vaccinated by Jan 1. Those who do not get vaccinated can take part in regular COVID-19 testing.

The requirement is  paused following numerous court challenges.

Once it is out of the judicial system and implemented, Inslee said Thursday the state would follow OSHA's guidance. He had previously said the state may enforce a stricter version similar to his vaccine mandate that does not allow for a test-out option.

Though he did not feel a test-out option was effective in Washington's experience, Inslee said Thursday he felt it was appropriate the state honor the federal decision, instead of making it stricter.

Separately, the Biden administration is requiring all health care settings, from hospitals to long-term care facilities, which participate in Medicaid or Medicare programs to implement a vaccine mandate in their facility.

The mandate requires employees at these facilities to receive their first dose by Dec. 6. All employees must have the necessary doses to be considered fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. The mandate also allows employees to ask for exemptions based on religious beliefs or medical conditions, and facilities must develop a process to consider exemptions under the mandate.

The federal health care vaccine mandate will bring neighboring state, Idaho, in line with Washington health care settings, which have already implemented a vaccine mandate per state order.

Kootenai Health, the largest health care setting in North Idaho, will have to comply with the mandate and has begun to implement a new policy to help health care workers comply.

"This policy includes exemptions for medical contraindications and sincerely held religious beliefs," a statement from Kootenai Health provided to The Spokesman-Review says. "We are doing all we can to make sure our staff's questions are being answered and they understand what this means for the organization and themselves."

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