Washington state public health officials are urging people to get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. They also advised employers to encourage vaccination and to work virtually as much as possible, as the state faces rising cases of the Omicron variant and an oncoming flu season.
State officials are beginning to see the state’s first cases of flu, Delta continues to infect people, and they have their eye on Omicron, the fast-spreading variant that was first detected in the state in late November.
“We are very concerned about hospital capacity,” said Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, the state’s chief science officer.
State officials have not seen the Omicron variant overtake Delta yet, said Shah, though it is rising in Washington and they are increasing their surveillance efforts to know more.
“We have to shift to do more representative sampling across the entire state so we can get a better picture of how and where it’s spreading,” said Shah. In the Seattle area, Omicron rates are rising swiftly, King County officials said in a briefing on Friday. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Omicron accounts for about 73% of infections nationally.
Health officials urged employers to take measures to help keep their employees and the community safe:
- Encourage, incentivize or require employees to get vaccinated.
- Provide messaging to promote vaccination and boosters. Said Shah: “A lot of people got confused at some point during the process whether they should be getting a booster. And this is a real opportunity for businesses in the private sector to help us champion those messages of ‘get vaccinated, and also get boosted.’”
- Have policies in place that support employees calling in sick. “Have a system set up where you can help them get tested,” said Shah. “Also encourage them not to expose others. We do not want to see outbreaks in our businesses or anywhere in the state.”
- Work virtually. Said Shah: “There are many companies on the tech side that can still work virtually. Where you can, be supportive of working virtually as much as possible.”
“We want to do everything we can to continue to keep our healthcare system strong,” said Shah. “Our healthcare system is absolutely stretched and strained right now. Many of our providers are being pushed in ways that they have never been pushed in the entirety of their careers.”
Many employers are in a holding pattern as Omicron emerges, and Seattle-area tech companies have a variety of plans in place. Docusign, Apple, Lyft, Ford, Uber, Google, and others have recently pushed back many previously-announced plans to get back to work in person.
Some companies such as Microsoft had already given up on predicting a timeframe for full reopening of offices.
On Tuesday, the University of Washington announced that most classes would be held online the first week of January.
Vaccine appointments are in high demand. Shah advises people who have multiple vaccine appointments to cancel any extra, so other eligible people can snag the slot. People should “not wait for the perfect booster,” said Shah. “The best booster is the one being offered to you.” The CDC provides information about boosters and eligibility here.
The vaccines are “safe, they’re effective, but we also know that we have waning immunity over time,” said Shah.
Studies from Europe and South Africa indicate that vaccinated individuals are more susceptible to infection with Omicron than they are to Delta. “The evidence is clear that we need to get this additional booster shot,” said Shah.
Washington has higher rates of vaccination than many other states. About 82% of residents 12 and older, about 5.4 million people, have received at least one vaccine dose. About 75% are fully vaccinated, though pockets of the state have lower rates. About 1.7 million have had an additional dose.
People who are unvaccinated are more than ten times likely to be hospitalized and die, said officials.
The health department is also working to increase vaccination capacity, he said. “We’re doing everything we can to alleviate that and improve that system,” said Shah. He also urged people to take other measures such as masking, increasing ventilation in rooms, and staying home when sick.
There are some early hints that Omicron might cause lower rates of hospitalizations than Delta, but it’s too early to know for sure, said Shah. And even if illness with the new variant is less severe, officials are still concerned about a spike in hospitalizations if a lot of people need care at once.
“These are unknowns,” said Shah. “We don’t have all the answers.”
Research on severity of infection and other questions is ongoing.
Compared with last winter’s surge of COVID-19, people now have a larger suite of measures to manage risk, including around holiday gatherings. “Use your common sense,” Shah said. He also reminded people to get their flu shots.
Data released Saturday from the University of Washington virology lab showed Omicron present in about half of COVID-19 positive samples from Dec. 14 and 15, assessed by a quick method. The bulk of the positive samples were from King and Snohomish counties, but the lab has also detected Omicron in samples from other counties. The lab analyzes about half of King County’s COVID-19 tests, UW researchers estimate, but it also pulls in some samples from the rest of the state.
King County health officials have said that they expect the number of Omicron cases to soar to about three times the peak of the Delta wave in August, to more than 2,000 cases daily by Dec. 22.
People should take care of each other and watch their mental health as the holidays approach, added Shah.
“The holidays are a very difficult time for everybody. The stress and the strain. But this year, it’s particularly concerning because all of us were hopeful that by this December we weren’t going to have a new variant or we weren’t going to have an increase in concern or cases. And that is not the case,” said Shah.
“And so we’ve got to do everything we can to support each other. So check on a neighbor, check on a family member. Help them get a vaccine appointment, help them to a booster appointment, drive them over there.”