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Washington's COVID-19 outbreak may be slowing but social distancing must persist, Gov. Inslee says

Office of WA Governor Jay Inslee
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issues a televised public address about the state's Covid-19 response on March 23, 2020.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Tuesday that state officials believe the spread of COVID-19 in Washington is likely on the decline. That's based on point-in-time data on hospitalizations.

However, Inslee said officials don't expect to lift many social distancing restrictions by May 4, the current end date for his stay-at-home order.

Inslee outlined the state's approach to relaxing social distancing orders during a televised public address Tuesday afternoon.

"It will look more like the turning of the dial than the flip of a switch," he said. "We’re going to take steps and then monitor to see whether they work or if we must continue to adapt."

Across the nation, state leaders face mounting pressure to reopen their economies to avoid a financial collapse.

Inslee said that health modeling will play a role in guiding decisions about lifting Washington's current emergency restrictions. But rolling back those measures too soon could be disastrous, he added.

"The data tell us that if we were to lift all restrictions right now – or even two weeks from now – this decline will almost certainly stop and the spread of COVID-19 will go up."

Washingtonians should expect for workplaces to look much different until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, Inslee said, adding that state officials "will provide guidance for industries to know when and how they can reopen."

Inslee said that plans for reopening Washington's economy don't significantly diverge from recovery plans outlined by other Western states or those communicated at the federal level.

"The reality we need to be aware of is this: We are going to have to steel ourselves against this virus for quite some time," Inslee said. "It is going to affect our daily lives in many ways for months. And we have to be aware that it could come at us in waves."

The governor also reiterated that the need for widespread COVID-19 testing — a key tool for determining when it's safe to lift social distancing orders — is still going unmet in Washington.

"Our state and others remain drastically behind on testing supplies," Inslee said. "The simple fact is the nation is sorely lacking test kits and today I sent a letter to the vice president saying as much. "

Officials have outlined a need to process between 20,000 to 30,000 tests daily, as opposed to the roughly 4,000 tests being run each day currently.

"In Washington, we have more lab capacity than we have test kits, a lack of supplies that keep us from getting everyone tested who should be," Inslee stated.

But despite the shortage of COVID-19 tests, state officials are moving ahead with plans to expand contact tracing: the identification and monitoring of individuals who've been exposed to a known case of COVID-19.

"Between our state and local health jurisdictions, we expect roughly 1,500 workers focused solely on contact tracing by the second week of May," Inslee said. "This workforce will be a rapid response team, like a fire brigade."

The governor also announced that he'd be appointing leaders to advise his office on three major areas of concern: public health and the health care system, safe work environments and economic recovery, and providing social supports to those most affected by or vulnerable to COVID-19.