OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state could represent the beginning of a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's hard to know, but we really recognize the fact that whatever progress we had made from the third wave appears to have plateaued and now we're moving in a direction that's concerning to all of us, so we need to take it seriously," Shah said.
Trends are beginning to look similar to the start of the third wave at the beginning of November, according to Shah. Hospitalization rates among younger age groups, especially those in their teens, 40s and 50s are of particular concern.
Shah said the state is continuing to race against the clock when it comes to getting residents vaccinated. New cases and hospitalizations are occurring more frequently in young people who won't be eligible for the vaccine until April 15.
"Most people in our state are still vulnerable to this horrific disease," Shah said.
The most prevalent COVID-19 variants in the state right now are the B.1.1.7 variant which originated in the UK, and the B.4.2.9 variant from California. However, while State Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist acknowledged the rise in cases is tied to variants, he said behaviors are also driving case increases.
"Lots of people in this younger age group are in all the places where these outbreaks are - bars, restaurants and travel," Lindquist said.
Hospitalization rates rising amongst young people can be expected as the volume of cases rises also, Lindquist said.
"It's a delicate time for all of us because we know the wave is starting to come back and we don't want that to happen," Shah said. "There's still time for us to protect ourselves and our loved ones and our communities. We're doing everything we can from a vaccine standpoint from both a quantity and an equity standpoint but it's absolutely critical that we work together with all those other preventative measures as well."
Of people who live in Washington, only about 22.5% of residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Around 35% of residents have at least one shot.
"We are in this pandemic until the pandemic is over," Shah said. "And this pandemic is not over yet by any stretch of the imagination, there is no reason that Washington is immune from any kind of increases that can occur."