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SEATTLE — The omicron wave of COVID-19 infections is the worst Washington has seen since the coronavirus arrived more than two years ago— but it may also be the key to ending the pandemic for good.
According to a recent update from the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), America may soon be seeing "the end of the pandemic from a policy standpoint." As IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray explains, COVID is here to stay, and like the flu will probably see yearly resurgences in the fall and winter, but it will no longer be the all-consuming concern it has been over the past 24 months.
"As people’s immunity declines and new variants emerge, we’re also likely to see resurgences of COVID-19," Murray said "But the current period of extraordinary social and economic disruption is likely coming to an end as COVID becomes a challenge that health systems manage, rather than a crisis that consumes society as a whole. I see reasons for hope."
The current omicron wave has torn through Washington state, account for "practically all" of Washington's new cases and pushing hospitalizations to record-breaking highs. But the wave is starting to plateau and when it does decline, Murray says the benefits could be enormous.
"Because Omicron is transmitted so easily, it quickly reaches its peak in affected countries and appears to taper off rapidly," Murray said. "While an Omicron wave is probably unavoidable in every country, the reason for hope is what we believe will come in its wake: an extended period of high immunity levels and low transmission. As we look beyond the current Omicron wave, COVID will become a recurrent disease that can be managed by health systems, like other infectious diseases such as flu."
According to Murray, omicron is so widespread it's likely not possible to contain through new police measures. However, that doesn't mean that COVID-19 safety guidelines can go out the window just yet.
"To prevent further death and suffering, governments around the world need to continue to take action, investing in new versions of vaccines; increasing access to vaccines, especially in low- and middle-income countries; monitoring the evolution of the virus through genetic surveillance; and implementing a coordinated global response, not hindered by nationalism," Murray said. "On an individual level, we can get the appropriate vaccines as directed by our governmental health organizations, taking third doses if we’re eligible. Wear a mask – ideally a high-quality one – when directed, and when social distancing isn’t possible."
Murray's words echo those shared by state health leaders and Washington's top medical professionals, who continue to urge all Washingtonians to vaccinate, get boosted and, hopefully, help hasten the end of the omicron wave. As of Jan. 18, the DOH says that 78.9 percent of Washington's population 5 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 71.6 percent are fully vaccinated. In addition, half of eligible Washingtonians have received their booster shots.
While the hope that omicron could herald the end of the pandemic is an enticing one, Washington's current situation remains dire. According to the Washington State Hospital Association, there were 2,333 confirmed COVID-19 patients in Washington hospitals Thursday, and 147 more suspected COVID cases — more than at any other point in the pandemic.
Among the hospitalized, there has been a steady increase in patients requiring ventilation over the past week, and deaths have climbed as well, with the state averaging between 30 to 35 deaths each day. Almost all of the dead were unvaccinated or unboosted.