Inslee warns of omicron COVID-19 variant, discusses mass testing rollout

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The omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading swiftly across Washington state as Gov. Jay Inslee warned residents about the risks of being unvaccinated in the wake of the new strain of the disease.

During a Jan. 5 press conference, Inslee said there has been “a very dramatic rise” in COVID-19 activity in Washington due to the variant. He said in the past week there was an increase of 146% of COVID-19 cases and a 46% increase of hospitalizations associated with the disease.

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

He noted hospitals are nearing the peak of capacity they experienced during the time the delta variant was most prominent.

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

The governor anticipated the latest wave would lead to disruptions in the state’s functions as the variant makes its way through the system. He reiterated mask wearing as an effective solution to slow the spread.

“The tools we have used thus far are still effective, thankfully,” Inslee said. “Wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, getting boosted, avoiding unnecessary large gatherings, inside particularly.”

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

Inslee said the Washington State Department of Health is scheduled to receive 5.5 million rapid testing kits which will be distributed to schools and local health care clinics. As of the press conference, the state health department had 800,000 of the tests on hand as another 2 million tests are expected by the end of the week.

Inslee said 1 million of those tests would be specifically available to schools upon request on top of what districts have already requested.

Inslee said the state would also release 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-based portal where families can order free testing kits. Inslee said that avenue for testing should be online by the middle of the month.

The governor also mentioned the establishment of a “high throughput” testing facility in the state, which is authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As of the press conference, Inslee did not know where the facility would be located or when it would be operational. He added the state planned to place its own site somewhere in the northwest 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 get one, particularly since data indicates the shots have helped prevent the spread of the omicron variant.

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

When asked about the potential of another shutdown of in-person schooling for K-12 students, Inslee noted it’s important for students to be in the classroom for their mental health. He said focusing on safety measures currently in place is a better route than closing down classrooms.

“We believe we have the tools available to provide safety for our students,” Inslee said.

Lacy Fehrenbach, the state deputy health secretary for COVID-19 response, said Washington is working with multiple manufacturers to get tests in an effort exacerbated by general supply chain issues across industries. Fehrenbach estimated it would cost about $50 million to fund the acquisition and distribution of the 5.5 million tests anticipated.

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

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

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