Omicron subvariant still spreading
COVID trends in Washington continue to be encouraging, state Secretary of Health Umair Shah said at a Department of Health (DOH) media briefing last week.
New cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all declining, and at their lowest point since last summer — among the lowest in the more than two years of the pandemic, he said.
Okanogan County Public Health reported 29 new COVID infections from March 23 through 29, compared with six the previous week. Most cases were in people aged 0 to 19 and 40 to 59, with the majority in Brewster and Omak. There were six cases in the Methow Valley.
Just 6% of Washington’s hospital beds are currently occupied by COVID patients, compared with 32% at the height of the Omicron surge in January. The statewide seven-day hospitalization rate per 100,000 population is now two, compared with 28. Daily deaths in Washington from COVID are now in the single digits, compared with more than 80 on the worst days in January, according to DOH.
While previous declines have been followed by a surge, state health officials are optimistic that increased vaccination rates, immunity from prior infection, and knowledge about protective measures including masking and good ventilation will keep another wave at bay, Shah said.
Still, the BA.2 Omicron subvariant continues to spread in Washington, where it now constitutes more than half of all new infections, Deputy Secretary for Prevention, Safety and Health Lacy Fehrenbach said. Washington does genetic sequencing of a representative percentage of cases to identify variants. Nationally, BA.2 accounts for 55% of all infections.
BA.2 appears to be slightly more contagious than the previous Omicron strain, but it does not seem to cause severe disease in most people, Fehrenbach said. Nevertheless, the proportion of cases in hospitals caused by BA.2 is growing, Shah said.
Because many people are using at-home tests and not reporting a positive result, current data may not capture all cases, Shah said. Monitoring severe disease through hospitalization rates and tracking the presence of the virus through wastewater helps provide an overall picture, he said.
Despite the promising trends, Shah reminded people that COVID is still a dangerous disease for some people. People can help protect vulnerable community members by wearing a mask in confined settings and by taking an at-home test before visiting someone at high risk, Fehrenbach said. People with cold or allergy symptoms should use a home test to ensure that they aren’t at risk of transmitting COVID.
COVID funding cut
Although some federal funding for COVID tests, vaccines and treatments expired in the past two weeks, there are still programs that help cover costs for people without medical insurance.
While the federal agency that has covered COVID costs for the uninsured stopped accepting claims for tests, treatment and vaccine administration, the state Health Care Authority received $35 million in federal funds to provide health care to uninsured and underinsured individuals under 200% of the federal poverty level, regardless of immigration status. The money will be awarded through grants to health care providers.
Washington is one of 15 states that is using Medicaid funding to continue to cover these expenses.
People without insurance may qualify for free coverage through Apple Health or a subsided policy through the state Health Benefit Exchange. Those policies would cover overall preventive care and other medical needs, not just COVID. More information is available at wahealthplanfinder.org.
DOH also has federal funding for epidemiology and laboratory capacity, and for the vaccine and public health workforce. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money for COVID-19 recovery efforts and vaccine initiatives is also still available. Washington is receiving full reimbursement for eligible FEMA expenditures through July 1. After that, reimbursement will drop to 90%, according to DOH.
The state has a good supply of medications to prevent and treat COVID, Chief Science Officer Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett said at the DOH briefing. For people who are immunocompromised and who may not produce robust antibodies even after vaccination, and for those who can’t be vaccinated because of an allergy, a drug called Evusheld can help provide protection from the virus for up to six months, Kwan-Gett said.
In addition, Washington has antiviral medications that can help protect people at high risk for severe complications from COVID if treatment is started in the first days of infection, he said.
Congress may renew funding
Congressional negotiations on an extension of COVID funding are ongoing, and there were indications of a possible compromise this week. The Senate reached a tentative deal that would eliminate $5 billion from Pres. Joe Biden’s original $22.5 billion request for an extension of COVID funding.
The compromise would provide money for COVID vaccines, at-home and lab testing, treatment, and research into new variants, according to a summary of the legislation. It eliminates coverage for a global vaccination effort.
As of mid-March, the United States had delivered 470 million vaccine doses worldwide, out of a total commitment of 1.2 billion doses, according to a White House fact sheet.
There is concern about the impacts of losing funding for the global vaccines. “Leaving large unvaccinated populations worldwide will increase the risk of new deadly variants emerging that could evade our current vaccines and treatments,” according to the White House.
The COVID funding bill hasn’t been taken up in the House of Representatives yet.