Inslee Warns of Omicron COVID-19 Variant, Discusses Deployment of Mass Testing

Rick Bannan / [email protected]

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in Washington state as Gov. Jay Inslee has warned residents of the risks of not being vaccinated as a result of the new strain of the disease.

At a press conference on Jan. 5, Inslee said there had been a “very dramatic increase” in COVID-19 activity in Washington due to the variant. He said that over the past week there had been a 146% increase in COVID-19 cases and a 46% increase in hospitalizations associated with the disease.

“We are seeing more cases of COVID now than at any time during the pandemic,” Inslee said.

He noted that hospitals are approaching the peak of capacity they experienced when the delta variant was most important.

Inslee said the omicron variant is “much more contagious than the delta variant.”

The governor predicted that the latest wave would cause disruption in state functions as the variant made its way through the system. He reiterated the mask wearing as an effective solution to slow the spread.

“The tools we’ve used so far are still effective, luckily,” Inslee said. “Wear a mask, get vaccinated, get boosted, avoid large unnecessary gatherings, especially indoors.”

Although Inslee acknowledged that the masks are effective, he noted that people could use an N95 rated mask or a double mask with a surgical and cloth mask for added safety.

Inslee said the Washington State Department of Health is expected to receive 5.5 million rapid test kits for distribution to schools and local health clinics. At the time of the press conference, the state’s health department had 800,000 tests on hand, as 2 million more tests are expected by the end of the week.

Inslee said a million of those tests would be specifically available to schools on request, in addition to what districts have already requested.

Inslee said the state will also distribute 10 million masks to schools and community clinics in the near future.

To expand testing capabilities, Inslee said the state has partnered with CareEvolution and Amazon for distribution. The effort includes an Internet portal where families can order free test kits. Inslee said the option to test is expected to be live by the middle of the month.

The governor also mentioned the creation of a “broadband” testing facility in the state, which is licensed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the time of the press conference, Inslee was unsure where the facility would be located or when it would be operational. He added that the state plans to place its own site somewhere in the northwestern part of the state around the same time the federal facility is established.

Inslee said those eligible for a booster dose of the vaccine should receive one, especially since data indicates that the injections have helped prevent the spread of the omicron variant.

“It has broader benefits than the first two doses,” Inslee said. “It has more consistent results… and longer term immunity compared to natural immunity.”

Asked about the potential for another in-person schooling shutdown for K-12 students, Inslee noted that it’s important for students to be in class for their mental health. He said focusing on the security measures currently in place is a better way than closing classrooms.

“We believe we have the tools available to keep our students safe,” Inslee said.

Lacy Fehrenbach, assistant secretary of state for health for the COVID-19 response, said Washington was working with several manufacturers to obtain testing in an effort exacerbated by general supply chain problems across industries. Fehrenbach estimated it would cost around $ 50 million to finance the acquisition and distribution of the planned 5.5 million tests.

As for Washingtonians taking the test, Fehrenbach suggested a proactive approach when people are potentially exposed to COVID-19.

“Think of (COVID-19 tests) like bandages,” Fehrenbach said. “You don’t buy a bandage when you cut yourself cutting vegetables in the kitchen. You have them on hand.


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