Washington Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy says health officials and scientists have learned much more about how the new coronavirus spreads, and that research informed new state restrictions.
On Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced new rules on social gatherings and businesses that are designed to circumvent a rapid statewide increase in new COVID-19 cases. Restaurants, bars, gyms, bowling centers and movie theaters are closed to indoor services. Retail stores and grocery stores must backtrack to 25% capacity.
Indoor social gatherings with people from outside one’s household are prohibited without proper quarantining. Outdoor gatherings are limited to five people.
Lofy said the rationale behind the decisions is based on science. During the governor’s news conference, she and Inslee acknowledged the state’s current spike in cases is the most dangerous wave yet, an unsustainable curve that threatens to overwhelm hospitals and worn-down health care workers, as well as claim more lives.
The state set records for daily case numbers on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with more than 2,000 cases each day.
“The choices we’ve announced today are not easy ones, I can tell you that, but I do believe they are the right choices given the threat we face,” Inslee said Sunday.
Why can’t officials pinpoint the exact origin of infection for COVID-positive people?
Lofy acknowledged that while scientists know more about how COVID-19 is spread, it’s still difficult to determine exactly how a person came to be infected.
People often cite more than one possible exposure.
They also don’t always remember all of their activities in the two weeks before they get their positive test results, or don’t want to share all of their activities with health workers, Lofy said.
While health officials can occasionally pinpoint the location of an outbreak — defined as a place where two or more people became infected — those incidences represent only a fraction of the total number of outbreaks, Lofy said.
“With limited data on where transmission is occurring in Washington, we also rely on the science of how the virus is spread,” she said.
Why shut down restaurants, bars, choirs and gyms?
Inslee said scientists have learned COVID-19 is most likely to be transmitted indoors where people are not wearing masks. It spreads where people are in close contact and spend a significant amount of time.
“These are scientific facts,” he said. “They are indisputable.”
Restaurants, gyms and stores are included in those high-risk settings, Inslee said. Religious services are limited to 25% occupancy or 200 people, whichever is less, and everyone must wear masks. No choir, band, congregational singing or ensembles are allowed, though soloists can perform.
Inslee said indoor choirs are too risky given how the virus travels during singing.
Lofy noted that health officials’ understanding of the virus has evolved over time.
Health officials originally believed the virus spread primarily through large droplets that became suspended in the air then fell to the ground, such as through coughs and sneezes.
But now health officials also know the virus spreads through much smaller droplets, called aerosols, that people can expel when talking or singing, she said.
Infected droplets also can linger and spread a distance greater than 6 feet. Places with poor ventilation where people linger and don’t wear masks, such as gyms and restaurants, increase a person’s risk of catching COVID-19, Lofy said.
The restrictions therefore aim to reduce prolonged indoor contact with people outside of an immediate household, she stressed.
Are there additional resources available?
The Washington State Department of Health has set up a hotline for people who need to talk with someone about any stress, anxiety or frustration the new restrictions might cause.
People can reach the Washington Listens line at 1-833-681-0211.
If you or someone you know is in need of more specialized support from a professional, contact your primary care provider or call 211 to help find a provider that will best suit your needs, from support related to rent relief, wage support, local businesses assistance, food assistance, energy bill assistance and more.