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OLYMPIA, WA — Newly modified standards will allow seven of Washington's 39 counties to move into the second reopening phase Monday, including the state's three largest: King, Pierce and Snohomish, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.
"Our case trends are declining and our hospital capacity is easing," Inslee said. "More than half a million Washingtonians have now had their first dose of the vaccine; this is good news. So, we are comfortable making these changes and allowing some further reopening as these metrics suggest."
Washington has remained among the more restrictive states throughout the pandemic and reinstituted statewide bans on most indoor activities in mid-November, aiming to quell a third surge in infections. After his extended order expired in early January, Inslee replaced it with the Healthy Washington initiative that groups Washington's 39 counties into eight regions. The first phase keeps indoor bans intact and limits social gatherings to the outdoors.
Phase 2 restores a wide range of indoor activities, including at restaurants, music venues, movie theaters and gyms, with capacity capped at 25 percent. Bars can welcome customers only if they serve food, and all drinking and dining establishments must close by 11 p.m.
Here is how the two phases differ:
The two regions moving forward Monday are Puget Sound and the West Region, which together include the counties of King, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston, Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pacific. The seven counties combined make up about half of the state's population.
Previously, each region was required to meet all four metrics to move into the second reopening phase as a group. For the last three weeks, no region met that standard.
Under the modifications announced Thursday, regions only need to meet three of the four standards to move forward:
A decreasing trend in the two-week rate of COVID-19 cases per 100K population (decrease >10%).
A decreasing trend in two-week rate new COVID-19 hospital admission rates per 100K population (decrease >10%).
ICU occupancy (total — COVID-19 and non-COVID-19) of less than 90%.
COVID-19 test positivity rate of <10%.
In another change announced Thursday, the state will evaluate each region's status every two weeks, rather than weekly, to provide more stability in the data. Regions may also be downgraded to previous phases if they fail two more of the following metrics over 14 days:
A decreasing or flat trend in the two-week rate of COVID-19 cases per 100K population
A decreasing or flat trend in the two-week rate new COVID-19 hospital admission rates per 100K population
ICU occupancy (total — COVID-19 and non-COVID-19) of less than 90%
A COVID-19 test positivity rate of <10%.
The governor has previously said more phases would be added to the state's framework as conditions improve, but on Thursday said no plans or proposed timelines for additional steps were final.
While Inslee's reopening announcement arrived amid recent signs of improvement across the state, public health leaders remain concerned that outbreaks propelled by more infectious variant strains could quickly inflame the crisis yet again. So far, Washington health districts have detected the B.1.1.7 variant in Snohomish and Pierce counties.
The governor said he was optimistic the state could vaccinate 90 percent of those most at-risk for serious illness or death in the next two months and before the variants are projected to become dominant. Should the strains gain a foothold more quickly, the governor said he would rollback reopenings once again.
PRESS RELEASE: Our new COVID-19 forecasts show the possibility of a spring spike in United States deaths if variants spread widely and people let down their guard. Details in the thread
— Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) (@IHME_UW) January 29, 2021
"If these variants get here big-time, and we start experiencing exponential growth, with the safety we've brought into this system, we'll go back into a safer zone in a heartbeat," Inslee said. "We have built in a way to cushion against the potential eventuality."
According to the latest data, Washington is more than half-way to its goal of administering 45,000 vaccine doses each day. However, limited vaccine supply has complicated efforts across the nation, and officials estimate it will take many months to get the general population vaccinated, even under the most favorable scenarios.
After the state reached phase 1B1 and expanded eligibility to all adults ages 65 and older, about 1.7 million residents currently qualify for vaccinations, while weekly shipments to the state have averaged just 100,000 doses. Earlier in the week, Inslee announced a federal commitment to boost the state's allotment by 16 percent over the next three weeks and ship special syringes that will help stretch an extra dose out of each Pfizer vial.