Washington State hits Pause button on Phase 4 of reopening plan due to increasing coronavirus cases

Following of week of record-high coronavirus cases in the United States, on Saturday, June 27th, Governor Inslee and Health Secretary John Wiesman announced the Washington State Department of Health is pausing counties moving to Phase 4 of Washington’s Safe Start reopening plan.

According to the announcement, rising COVID-19 cases across the state and concerns about continued virus spread have made Phase 4, which would essentially mean no restrictions, “impossible at this time.” 

The move happened as eight counties were eligible to move from Phase 3 to Phase 4. 

“Phase 4 would mean a return to normal activity and we can’t do that now due to the continued rise in cases across the state,” Inslee said. “We all want to get back to doing all the things we love in Washington during the summer, and fully open our economy, but we aren’t there yet.

Inslee described the situation evolving and said the state would ‘continue to make decisions ‘based on the data.’

On Saturday, Washington DOH reported the second highest single day number of new coronavirus cases – 555- second to the 619 cases reported on June 19th. King County reported 124 of those new cases yesterday, along with 10 new hospitalizations. The most cases reported in a single day in King County was 201 on April 2nd.

Locally this week, one new coronavirus case was reported in Fall City on June 24th and one more was reported in Snoqualmie on June 26th. North Bend had one new case on June 18th. Prior to this neither North Bend nor Snoqualmie had reported new cases since mid May. Fall City reported another new case on June 7th.

Across King County, although hospitalizations have increased this week, they are still dramatically lower than they were at the peak in late March/ early April.

[Note: the latest King County DOH dashboard no longer tracks cases by zip code, only city, which makes in difficult to track new cases in unincorporated areas of each city.]

Currently King County is in phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, which it entered on June 19th. Per the SafeStart reopening rules, the earliest the county could enter phase 3 would be July 3rd.

According to the state’s Risk Assessment Dashboard – used to monitor metrics for counties moving between phases – King County’s rate of infection for the prior two weeks has increased above the key metric goal of 25. It now stands at 33. But the county is meeting hospital readiness benchmarks and testing metrics have been increasing.

The latest statewide coronavirus situation report showed increasing COVID-19 transmission across Washington as of mid-June. The report suggests for Yakima County (current virus epicenter), recent efforts to control the virus are showing some initial signs of success. DOH said the situation, though, remains concerning.

According to a DOH news release, in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, the percentage of the population with COVID-19 is increasing, adding, “The trend is more difficult to interpret for King County due to increases in testing, but the spread of COVID-19 appears to be increasing across the Puget Sound.”

The state also tracks data on emergency department visits for COVID-like illness—another way of looking at possible cases that isn’t affected by testing volume. This includes patients who are diagnosed with COVID-19, as well as patients who have symptoms (fever and cough or shortness of breath) and test negative for influenza. The visits have plateaued in the Puget Sound in recent weeks, which DOH says may be cause for concern when considered with other data on possible increases in transmission.

As other states experience surging coronavirus cases – like Arizona, California and Florida – Washington instituted a statewide mandatory face covering order on Friday, June 26th.

Health Secretary Wiesman said the best thing residents can do to slow the spread of the virus is to wear facial coverings, maintain physical distancing and practice good hand hygiene.

He said, “Now that testing supplies are available, it is critical to get a test if you have any symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19.”

Wiesman sent a letter to local and tribal health leaders throughout the state on Saturday that stated:

“I am writing to let you know Governor Inslee and I have decided to pause progression to Phase 4 statewide. 

“We decided to prohibit any counties from moving into phase 4 at this time due to increasing COVID-19 activity across the state and significant rebounds in COVID-19 activity in several other states. The changes between Phase 3 and Phase 4, especially with regards to gathering size and occupancy rates, could further increase the spread of COVID-19 in our state, even in communities that have very low rates of disease. The progress we’ve made thus far is at risk, therefore we are making the prudent choice to slow down our phased approach to reopening.

“In the next couple of weeks, I will work with Governor Inslee and his team to assess the need for a modified approach for moving beyond Phase 3. I will communicate that decision to you when we have more information. Counties that are currently able to apply to move from Phase 1 or 2 are still able to apply when eligible.

“Thank you for your continued work to protect the health of Washingtonians during this unprecedented time.”

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