Washington has a new plan to keep people safe and healthy as residents learn to coexist with COVID.
Now that the mask mandate and all restrictions on events have been lifted, the Washington Department of Health (DOH) has released the ForWArd plan, which has three main components: empowerment, prevention and readiness, Secretary of Health Umair Shah said at a news conference last week.
The ForWArd plan will guide the state as it transitions from response to recovery. It provides a general overview of what health agencies are doing to ensure that the state is prepared to assess future risks and to know if the risk of COVID has increased enough to necessitate a return to stricter precautions.
DOH officials point to the fact that Washington has one of the lowest death rates from COVID in the country as proof that the state’s approach to the virus has been successful and is a model that will protect people over the long term.
The empowerment aspect of the plan relies on people’s ability to protect themselves with vaccines and testing, and points to social-service programs that support people with day-to-day needs if they have to isolate. There are many resources where people can get necessary information about testing and other interventions, Shah said.
The prevention component focuses on vaccination, protective equipment for health care workers and the general public, and COVID tests. The plan commits the state to keeping enough vaccines, protective gear and tests on hand even if a surge in cases or a new variant increases demand.
The state can give up to 60,000 vaccines a day, Deputy Secretary for Prevention, Safety and Health Lacy Fehrenbach said. Washington has already distributed more than 8 million at-home COVID tests and has an inventory of 7.5 million high-quality masks for health care workers and community members if needed, she said.
The third major component provides for readiness of the health care system, along with disease detection to prevent new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Shah said. It also ensures a supply of treatments, including antiviral medications and monoclonal antibodies.
Genomic sequencing and wastewater surveillance will enable the state to track new variants as they develop, Fehrenbach said.
Because the Omicron surge — which produced the highest case numbers in the two years of the pandemic — has fallen so precipitously, health officials are comfortable moving into this next phase, State Epidemiologist for Communicable Diseases Scott Lindquist said. State epidemiologists have been tracking the virus around the country and world and see a similar pattern here, he said.
Although state health officials are optimistic, they remind the public that COVID is still with us and it’s conceivable that we’ll need to temporarily resume precautions to respond to a new variant, prevent a surge in infections, and protect health system capacity.
The plan is designed so that local health jurisdictions can spot the potential for a surge and recommend necessary precautions, rather than impose restrictions on a statewide level, Lindquist said.
Vaccines, tests may no longer be free
People who haven’t gotten a COVID vaccine or booster may want to seize the opportunity to get the shot while it’s still free.
If Congress doesn’t approve a new appropriation, COVID vaccines, tests and treatments may no longer be free for everyone starting in April. The risk is highest for people with no health insurance, who could have to pay for administration of a vaccine or booster shot. The fund that reimburses health care providers for caring for uninsured people will be scaled back this month and will end completely in early April, according to a White House fact sheet issued last week.
Washington state health officials have been working closely with their federal partners to push for continuation of federal COVID funding, and they’re pressing Congress to recognize that the pandemic isn’t over, Deputy Secretary for Prevention, Safety and Health Lacy Fehrenbach said at a news conference last week.
Money that supports domestic testing manufacturers will run out starting in June. Funding to detect new variants and for global vaccination and treatment campaigns would also expire, according to the White House. The Biden administration is seeking $22.5 billion in immediate emergency funding to cover prevention and be prepared to fight new variants and potential COVID surges.
Both Pfizer and Moderna, which developed the two mRNA vaccines in wide use, have applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an emergency-use authorization of an additional booster for adults 65 and older. Authorization would provide for a fourth dose of the vaccines to help protect more vulnerable individuals as new variants develop.