Washington's About to Enter the "Live with It" Stage of the Pandemic
We don't have an authorized vaccine for every child yet, and the Omicron wave still hasn't bottomed out, but local and state officials have apparently seen enough: It's time to ditch mask and vaccine verification requirements. "We will have to figure out how to live with this existing virus," governor Jay Inslee said during a Thursday press conference.
To be clear, neither policy will vanish immediately. Inslee announced that the state's indoor mask mandate will end on March 21 at schools, restaurants, libraries, and gyms (but not at health care facilities or on public transit). Vax card proof at large events across the state will cease on March 1, the same date King County will end its verification rule at bars, restaurants, and other venues, county executive Dow Constantine said earlier this week.
Local and state officials (and Microsoft) are betting that sharp declines in cases and hospitalizations from the peak of the Omicron wave will continue. Dr. Umair A. Shah, the state's secretary of health, noted that we have access to more tools, such as at-home Covid tests and booster doses, than we once did to combat the virus and, groan, "live with Covid."
This shift in public health policy is bound to be met with ambivalence in this divided state. "I know that there are some people who feel that it should have been ended earlier," Inslee said of the mask mandate. "I also know that there's a lot of people who think it maybe is ending too soon."
The governor admitted that "the number of people entering our hospitals today is still extremely high, continues to put pressure on our hospitals, and unfortunately continues to take lives in our state." Just because we've experienced declines in cases and hospitalizations of late doesn't mean we've fallen to even the levels that once gave us the heebie-jeebies (and prompted shutdowns).
But Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County's public health officer, said during a presser that the health care system is in a better place now than it was in prior surges. Omicron symptoms are often milder than previous variants, and though the effectiveness of the initial vaccine series has waned during this wave, booster doses add significant protection.
Private businesses can keep mask and vaccine requirements in place if they'd like. And Duchin stressed that taking measures to protect oneself and those around them, including children and immunocompromised people, is still vital. (He also added that even mild cases of Covid among healthy people can lead to long-term symptoms from the virus.)
But the message from our local government is clear: The burden of responsibility to fight this pandemic is shifting almost fully to individuals and businesses. Whether we're ready for it or not.