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As omicron soars, Inslee announces expanded testing and mask distribution to keep schools open

File Photo
Gov. Jay Inslee, pictured in this file photo, announced Wednesday plans to expand access to testing, masks and booster shots in an effort to stem the spread of the contagious omicron variant of COVID-19.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the state is racing to expand access to testing, masks and vaccines, but has no immediate plans to impose new rollbacks, mandates or restrictions in the face of an unprecedented wave of new COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant.

At a news conference Wednesday, held entirely virtually because of concerns about omicron, the governor also emphasized that his priority is to keep schools open.

“We have to do everything we can to maintain as much in-person instruction as possible, which this wave of cases will make more difficult,” Inslee’s prepared remarks said. “Students have lost too much already during this pandemic. That is why we are focused heavily on making sure tests, masks, and boosters are readily available for our school staff and students.”

In recent days, Washington has received 800-thousand at-home tests and expects another 4.7 million test kits to arrive next week, according to the governor’s office. Some of the tests — which were ordered by the Washington Department of Health and were not sourced through the federal government — will be distributed to schools and local health departments.

Washington has approximately one million school children and a total state population of about 7.6 million.

The state is also partnering with CareEvolution and Amazon to create a new web portal where families can order tests to be delivered to their home at no charge. The portal is expected to launch in the next couple of weeks.

To try to slow the spread of omicron, the state will tap into its personal protective equipment inventory with plans to distribute roughly 10 million KN95 and surgical masks in the coming weeks. Schools will be among the prioritized recipients.

In addition, efforts are underway to expand access to COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. The governor’s office said a FEMA mobile vaccination site in Auburn recently tripled its throughput to 1,500 shots a day. Another high-volume vaccine site is scheduled to open in Northwest Washington later in the month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends boosters for everyone ages 16 years and older after completing their primary COVID-19 vaccination series. A CDC panel was meeting Wednesday to consider approving boosters for 12 to 15 year-olds who’ve received the Pfizer vaccine.

Like many states, Washington is experiencing an explosion of new COVID-19 infections driven by omicron, a highly contagious, but apparently less severe variant of the virus.

The state is averaging more than 6,000 new cases a day, or about double the peak during the delta variant-driven fifth wave last fall, according to the Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard. COVID-related hospitalizations are also rising, but so far deaths are not.

About 74 percent of Washingtonians 12 and up are fully vaccinated. More than 80 percent have initiated the vaccine.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."