Most Eligible Washington Residents Have Gotten COVID Boosters, But Work Still Ahead, DOH Says

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About 53% of eligible people have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose, according to Washington state health officials.

Secretary of Health Umair Shah shared the statistic for the 12 and older eligible population during a Wednesday morning briefing. He said 2.2 million booster doses had been given out across the state.

Researchers are still studying the ongoing effectiveness of the vaccines, said Acting Assistant Secretary Michele Roberts. However, she emphasized that the vaccines continue to be a key tool in responding to the more transmissible Omicron variant.

"It's really becoming more and more clear how important this booster dose is to continue to build our immunity and really continue to fight the emergence of Omicron and other variants and keeping our health system whole," Roberts said.

Shah acknowledged the continued strain on the state's hospital system as he noted the two-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 case in the country. The first documented case affected a Snohomish County man in January 2020.

"It has not been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but every time a Washingtonian gets a vaccine, or puts their mask on, or avoids a crowded situation, or stays away from a certain setting because they're concerned about their health or someone else's health, they are working together to fight this pandemic," Shah said.

As of Monday, the state reports it has recorded over 1.1 million cases, 49,940 hospitalizations and 10,230 deaths since the start of the pandemic. The state has a total population of over 7.7 million.

Disease activity appears to be slowing in Western Washington and accelerating in some parts of eastern Washington, Chief Science Officer Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett said.

The proportion of patients who require hospitalization has fallen dramatically with the Omicron surge, Kwan-Gett said. Despite this, the number of hospitalizations has gone up.

"We are seeing elevated hospitalization rates for all age groups compared to last fall and they continue to be the highest for the elderly as they have throughout the pandemic," Kwan-Gett said.

Deaths have been declining for the past few months and appear to be leveling off, Kwan-Gett said. Officials are continuing to watch this trend carefully, he added.

"We're not sure if this is a harbinger of perhaps rising deaths, which we sometimes see after a rise in cases and hospitalizations, or if this is just a temporary plateau," Kwan-Gett said.

To alleviate the strain on hospitals, Kwan-Gett recommended people only go to emergency rooms if they are having a true emergency. He also called on all eligible residents to get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible.

Although most eligible people have gotten a booster, Shah said there are still significant numbers ofpeople who need to get vaccinated and boosted.

"If you have not been boosted or if you've not even started your primary vaccination series, you are a sitting duck for this Omicron variant," Shah said. "Unfortunately, we still have far too many people who have not gotten boosted and far too many people who have not gotten their primary vaccine series."

Instances of vaccine breakthrough cases have been increasing in recent weeks, Shah said. However, he noted that those with waning immunity and who are not boosted are factored into breakthrough data.

Chief Science Officer Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett said the Omicron variant has mutations that make it harder for individuals' immune systems to recognize and protect against it. Still, he said vaccines continue to provide effective protection against more serious cases that require hospitalizations and can lead to death.

"So if your friend is telling you, 'Hey, I got Omicron even though I'm vaccinated," since your friend is still alive and if your friend is not lined up in the hospital, that vaccine did exactly what it's supposed to do," Kwan-Gett said.

Reflecting on the last two years, Shah said the pandemic has come in relentless waves. He said it's been challenging anticipating and adjusting to new variants, but he still sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

"We know that we're going to be living with COVID for a long time coming," Shah said. "But at the same time, we also recognize that we still have some very specific tools around vaccines, boosters, masks and hygiene and making sure that we know the kinds of things that we need to do to empower ourselves to be safe and protected."