Washington's health leaders urge caution this winter as respiratory viruses spread

Monday, Oct. 31 will mark the end of the remaining COVID-19 orders and state of emergency in Washington.

On Thursday during a media briefing, state health officials said the public should still be mindful of COVID-19 and cautious of other respiratory viruses emerging throughout the state that could challenge hospitals in a way that hasn’t been seen before.

Washington State Department of Health (DOH) said Washington is currently seeing a moderate rate of COVID-19 infections. 

"We don’t have a way of predicting COVID-19 activity, but we need to prepare for the likelihood for another wave of COVID-19 this winter. In fact, some European countries have seen a rise in cases over the last few weeks and the same could happen here in the United States," said Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett of the DOH.

As more people gather indoors this season, DOH officials said the transmission of COVID is likely and so are other infections causing concern. This includes Respiratory Syncytial Virus, known as RSV. Health experts said the virus is spreading rapidly across the nation and in Washington. Its symptoms mimic a common cold that people can treat themselves. However, it can become very severe for those with compromised immune systems and those who are elderly.

"We’re hearing that most pediatric sites, such as Seattle Children’s Hospital and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, are seeing record highs in emergency department volumes due to RSV and other respiratory viruses," said Dr. Kwan-Gett.

The high volume of RSV cases is putting even more strain on the overwhelmed healthcare system still dealing with the effects of COVID-19, not to mention the looming worry of this year’s influenza season.

Fall COVID-19 surge could happen in Pacific Northwest

The top health officer in Washington state’s most populous county said Thursday that a fall and winter COVID surge is likely headed to the Pacific Northwest after months of relatively low case levels.

"This may be the first season in a couple when we’re not going to see as much masking happening across the system. And that is the concern that we may see more of those respiratory diseases and the transmission that goes along with them," said Dr. Umair Shah, DOH Secretary of Health.

State health leaders said reducing the spread of these respiratory diseases comes from population immunity. Though there is only treatment for RSV, health leaders are urging all eligible people to get their flu shot and updated COVID-19 booster.

"It’s more important now than ever to make sure your home’s vaccination status is up-to-date, whether that means making sure younger children have completed their primary series or anyone in your family who’s eligible has received an updated bivalent booster, said Lacy Fehrenbach of DOH.

By vaccination, DOH said that could help ease some of the burden at stressed healthcare facilities.

"This is going to be a challenging time for the next few months, and let’s hope that by the time spring comes back around and the weather gets better that we will be in a better place. But of course, we can’t guarantee that because this is potentially the new normal that we may be seeing for some time," said Dr. Shah.

DOH said face masks will still be required for all health care and long-term care facilities. COVID vaccination requirements for health and education workers will end on Oct. 31, but Gov. Jay  Inslee said employers can continue requiring vaccines if they choose.