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'Heart of a community': State health department committed to keeping students in schools amid COVID-19 surge

The state's latest data shows that the COVID-19 case rate in Washington appears to be plateauing.

SEATTLE — Schools across Washington can expect new guidance from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) on how to handle COVID-19 outbreaks on their campuses. 

The DOH announced the upcoming guidance during a press briefing Thursday morning ahead of Labor Day weekend, providing an update on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah was joined by Acting Chief Science Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist, Acting Assistant Secretary Michele Roberts and Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Michaela Miller.

With schools returning to in-person learning, Shah said that layered safety measures are a must for schools and parents, using vaccines, masks, ventilation, hand hygiene, testing, social distancing and already established response plans to fully protect students. 

Parents are urged to vaccinate all eligible family members and continue to use best practices for COVID-19 safety like limiting travel, keeping playdates small and outdoors, wearing masks indoors when with people outside of the household and getting tested when symptoms appear. 

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As of Aug. 30, about 41% of Washingtonians 12 to 15 years old are fully vaccinated. For those 16 to 17 years old, 48% are fully vaccinated.

Shah said that it is very important for those numbers to go up while adding that other safety measures are still a must.

"We realize this is a difficult moment," Shah said. "This has been a very difficult time for all of us." 

Miller said that educators are now experts in mitigation strategies across the state, adding that the entire community is needed to keep students in classrooms. 

"We know that schools are the heart of a community," she said. "Schools don’t work autonomously, they work in conjunction with the community they’re in."

Speaking to parents, Miller said that modeling best practices at home is the "most paramount thing you can do." 

Schools have also leveraged federal funds to not only fund mitigation efforts and academic tools but also behavioral and mental health assets for students. 

Lindquist, touching on the ongoing fifth wave of the pandemic, said that case rates are possibly plateauing, but any word on the future of the state's case rate would be total "conjecture."

The state’s hospitals continue to struggle amid the latest COVID-19 surge caused by the rise of the delta variant, a highly transmissible strain of the virus.

On Monday, the Washington State Hospital Association again pleaded with the public to get vaccinated and take precautions, even advocating for the cancellation of mass events like the Washington State Fair starting this weekend in Puyallup.

The fair has since been forced to implement a mask mandate for everyone regardless of vaccination status indoors and outdoors.

Lindquist said Thursday that, even with the apparent plateauing, the best case scenario is another one to two weeks of increased hospital rates since those lag behind case rates. 

"We don’t believe we are in a crisis mode yet," Shah said, adding, "Certain communities are very, very stretched."

By the end of next week, all 1.1 million Washington students will be back in class in some shape or form, according to Miller. She urged everyone to "thank an educator" and anyone working schools as they work to keep kids in classrooms. 

Miller said that staffing shortages, including the critical shortages seen in bus drivers, is being monitored closely. 

There was no date given on when the new outbreak guidance would be available. 

Meanwhile, Shah and Lindquist voiced their concerns about Labor weekend. 

Ahead of Labor Day weekend last year, health experts warned Washingtonians about the risk of gatherings and attending mass events. However, looking at the state’s data from fall 2020, cases did begin to climb through the month of September following a slight slump, rising toward the eventual wintertime surge.

This year, the same requests are being made along with the continuous request that those who are unvaccinated get their shots. 

The state is also working on making booster shots available, with preparations underway to service up to 90,000 shots a day. 

Currently, the state’s case rate is higher than at any point last winter and COVID-19 hospitalizations are at an all-time high of 1,570 patients. Hospital officials said that the state’s hospital occupancy has never been as high as it is now, even before the pandemic.

Shah said the fifth wave is "important because it is being driven by unvaccinated people and the delta variant."

As of Aug. 30, 73.3% of eligible Washingtonians have received at least one dose of the vaccine. According to one hospital official, the latest numbers show that the state needs at least 85% of its total population to be fully vaccinated in order to beat the delta variant.

"The biggest concern I have is risk," said Lindquist about Labor Day weekend. "Our emergency rooms, intensive care units are so full. Please mitigate your risk."