Two-phase plan divides state into regions
Washington state has developed a new approach to help restart the economy by changing how it assesses COVID risks.
The approach, called Healthy Washington–Roadmap to Recovery, will allow more businesses to open and immediately permit some spectator sports and live entertainment.
The roadmap assesses COVID infection rates and the capacity of hospitals and ICUs by region, rather than individual county, said Gov. Jay Inslee when he announced the plan last week. Okanogan County is in the north-central region, along with Chelan, Douglas and Grant counties.
“This is a path forward that allows us to balance the fight against COVID-19 and saving as many lives as we can with other factors such as reopening of the economy and getting as many people vaccinated as possible.”
– Washington Secretary of Health Umair Shah
Rather than imposing a blanket prohibition, the roadmap groups activities by risk, taking into account whether they can be done indoors or out, if masks can be worn and people can maintain a distance, and the likelihood of large crowds, Lacy Fehrenbach, Washington’s deputy secretary for COVID response, said at the news conference about the plan. Even in the current phase, the roadmap relaxes some restrictions, permitting group outdoor activities and outdoor live entertainment.
The Roadmap to Recovery replaces the four-phase Safe Start approach the state introduced last June, where each county was evaluated on its own and had to convince the state Department of Health (DOH) that COVID was under adequate control before it could advance. For now, the new system has just two phases, but others will be added as more people are vaccinated and scientists learn more about the disease, Fehrenbach said. All regions will start in Phase 1.
The new approach is designed to be more flexible. It stresses a decrease in COVID transmission and uses hospital admission and ICU indicators instead of numerical goals, Fehrenbach said.
Now, when a region moves to Phase 2, it can open restaurants for indoor dining at 25% capacity, allow fitness centers to operate at 25% capacity, allow spectators for sporting events, and increase the number of people at weddings and funerals. For all these activities, people will still be required to wear masks and to social distance.
Indoor social gatherings are prohibited in Phase 1, but people will be able to gather with up to five people from outside their household in Phase 2, and larger outdoor gatherings will be allowed.
Some activities won’t change in Phase 2. Retail stores, personal services like hair salons, and indoor worship will still be restricted to 25% of capacity.
“This is a path forward that allows us to balance the fight against COVID-19 and saving as many lives as we can with other factors such as reopening of the economy and getting as many people vaccinated as possible,” Washington Secretary of Health Umair Shah said.
While the roadmap is very conservative, it recognizes the physical and mental health contributes of allowing a gradual return to things bring people joy, such as sporting and cultural events, Fehrenbach said.
The new roadmap doesn’t reopen businesses right away. The state has obligated $100 million — and will make more money available — to help businesses weather the economic crisis while saving thousands of lives, Inslee said.
Under the old system, Okanogan County — like most in the state — was in Phase 2, although 17 of the least-populous counties were already in Phase 3. Although that system allowed limited indoor dining in Phase 2, Inslee closed restaurants statewide again after cases surged in the fall. The old approach banned live entertainment until Phase 4.
Under the new plan, to go from Phase 1 to Phase 2, a region must meet four metrics: at least a 10% decrease in the two-week rate of COVID cases per 100,000 population; at least a 10% decrease in new COVID hospital admissions per 100,000 population, ICU occupancy under 90%; and COVID test positivity rate under 10%.
To stay in Phase 2, the region must continue to meet at least three of these measurements or it will be moved back to Phase 1.
As of Friday (Jan. 8), the north-central region showed a 24% decrease in new COVID cases and a 1% decrease in hospital admissions. Seventy-six percent of ICU beds were in use, which DOH considers “low.” The percent of tests coming back positive was at 15%, considered “high” (the percentage of positive tests must be under 10% to be deemed low). Positive tests in Okanogan County were at 18%, and considerably higher in the other counties in the region. The north-central and southwest regions were the only ones where hospitalizations fell.
Overall, Washington has one of the lowest rates of COVID transmission in the country, showing that the precautions people have been taking — wearing masks, social distancing and not gathering with people outside their household — have been working, Inslee said. While the disease is still too widespread, there are signs that transmission has leveled off in many areas, he said.
The rate of new infections per 100,000 population has dropped in Okanogan and Grant counties, but the disease rate in Chelan and Douglas counties increased slightly in the past two weeks. Okanogan County now has a rate of about 400, while the other three counties in the region are from 640 to 700. DOH will assess the metrics every Friday and each region will move forward or back on Monday.
“When we look at the data from each one of the eight regions, we are seeing some positive trends. This is encouraging, and we are hopeful these trends will continue, and we will see regions begin to move into Phase 2 very soon,” Fehrenbach said.