OLYMPIA — Snohomish County is staying in Phase 3, for now.
In an unexpected move, Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced a two-week pause that prevents counties from sliding back in the state’s reopening plan, as the number of Washingtonians who are fully vaccinated continues to grow and metrics point to a possible plateau in the virus’ fourth wave.
“We’re responding to what we’ve learned with the most recent information as we always have,” he said during a press conference. “We are at the intersection of progress and failure, and we cannot veer from the path of progress. Our economy is beginning to show early signs of growth thanks to some of our great legislative victories and we know vaccines are the ticket to further reopening — if we adhere to public health until enough people are vaccinated.”
Without the pause, Snohomish County, along with several others, would have reverted to Phase 2, data shows.
“I appreciate the governor’s thoughtful approach and think this decision is the best one for Snohomish County and the region,” county Executive Dave Somers said in a statement. “Our trend lines are plateauing, and keeping our small businesses open after a very hard year will support our recovery.”
The next county evaluation is set for May 18, and public health officials say the best way to stay in Phase 3 is to get vaccinated.
“We know vaccines are our pathway out of this pandemic,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said. “If you have gotten vaccinated, your job is not done. Please help someone else get vaccinated, as well.”
The Fourth Wave
Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, staying in Phase 3 required that counties report fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks, and fewer than five weekly hospitalizations.
Snohomish County is exceeding both of those benchmarks, but data also indicates the virus’ fourth wave may be slowing down.
The latest two-week case rate, ending Saturday, shows 229 new infections per 100,000 people. The previous count reported 223 per 100,000.
“Hopefully that’s a signal of sustained improvement, and ideally seeing that curve turn down,” Snohomish County health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said.
Meanwhile, the county’s weekly hospitalization rate was 7.2 per 100,000, though the death rate from COVID has yet to increase.
That’s partially because the county’s most vulnerable residents are vaccinated, Spitters said.
In the last month, the majority of COVID patients at local hospitals have been between 50 and 59, though some people in their 20s have been hospitalized, as well.
“Although younger populations are at lower risk, they’re not at zero risk,” Spitters said.
Leading up to Tuesday’s announcement, county officials from across the state pleaded with Inslee’s office for more time to get residents vaccinated, and many braced to fall back to Phase 2.
“I’m sure all of us want to avoid a prolonged game of whack-a-mole with imposing restrictions and easing restrictions,” King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said Tuesday. “Vaccination is our ticket to a more stable and more normal life and lifestyle.”
Locally, Executive Somers said he was told about the two-week pause an hour before the governor’s announcement.
But this wasn’t the first time the governor acted to prevent a massive reopening backslide.
In early April, with case counts on the rise statewide, he changed the rules so a county had to exceed the limits for both COVID cases and hospitalizations, not just one, to revert phases.
That kept the majority of Washington in Phase 3.
Inside Snohomish’s 110-year-old Oxford Saloon, owner Craig Swanson tuned in to the governor’s remarks on Tuesday expecting the worst.
Going back to Phase 2 would mean reducing indoor capacity from 50% to 25%.
“It’s safe to say it was hard to get some sleep last night,” he said. “We had been seeing this coming for a while and based on the governor’s past choices, I think we all kind of assumed the worst.”
Staff prepared for a downsized schedule and reduced ordering, a gut-wrenching hit after a month of April that broke records for the historic eatery.
“We see this trend of people coming out and feeling safer and the revenue shows, so if we were looking at a roll back that would definitely impact our bottom line and overall, impact people’s confidence about coming back out again,” Swanson said. “Lo and behold, that wasn’t the case today. We couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Swanson said the saloon was beginning to get its soul back with the return of live music and added capacity.
The idea of skirting would-be regulations crossed Swanson’s mind, but ultimately, a strong relationship with the city, health department and state liquor control board were more important, he said.
“This whole past year has been filled with those kinds of moments of small victories and big defeats, you almost become accustomed to it, you almost come to expect it,” Swanson said. “We don’t feel we are out of the woods yet, so if that were to happen it would be, obviously, a huge disappointment, but we would have to make do as we have been the last year.”
Off Second Street, Ken Holden said his restaurant, Brava’s Pizza, hasn’t yet returned to 50% capacity with social distancing requirements.
The business has fared better than most with a surge in delivery and takeout, but Holden said the changing guidance is creating confusion.
“There is so many rules and regulations, you can’t keep track of it,” he said.
The pizzeria owner isn’t one to disobey the rules and said he wants to do his part, but he also isn’t going to fret over 11 people at a table.
As staff continue to get the vaccine, Holden said he sees a light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic, but it isn’t as close as he’d hope.
“Is it a week or a month away? Probably not,” he said.
The Race to Vaccinate
It’s been nearly five months since vaccines arrived in Washington.
Statewide, more than 54% of adults have received at least one dose, and 38% are fully vaccinated.
Across Snohomish County, nearly 250,000 residents are fully vaccinated, while another 110,000 are waiting for a second dose.
But public health experts are worried about the recent slowdown in demand.
Over the weekend, the county had 600 surplus doses of the Pfizer vaccine that needed to be used by Sunday, or they’d go to waste.
The doses were thawed earlier in the week for use at county mass vaccination sites, but officials overestimated how many doses they’d need. And they couldn’t go back in the freezer.
On Sunday, the county hosted an emergency, no-appointment-needed clinic at the Ash Way Park & Ride site, and all of the doses were administered.
“It was a lesson for us, in that while we avoided wasting vaccines this particular time, we have a lot of work to get the rest of Snohomish County vaccinated,” county Director of Emergency Management Jason Biermann said. “We are making changes. We want to improve access.”
Starting Wednesday, residents no longer need an appointment at the county’s seven mass vaccination sites. And the county is expanding weekend and evening hours at the sites.
Meanwhile, mobile crews continue to administer shots at pop-up clinics and offer vaccinations for homebound residents.
To schedule an appointment, homebound vaccination or inquire about a clinic, you can reach the county’s COVID call center at 425-339-5278.
“We’re doing everything we can to make these vaccines available,” Biermann said.
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this article.