What you need to know about omicron and COVID in Washington

Don’t panic. Crosscut answers your questions about the latest surge.

People at a COVID testing site

COVID-19 testing specialists Alex Honn, right, and Tokeya Berry test a driver at a drive-up coronavirus testing location on Dec. 21, 2021, in Bellingham. Washington health officials said Tuesday that at least 400 cases of omicron, the new COVID-19 variant, had been confirmed, but that it hasn't yet overtaken delta cases in the state. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

With COVID-19 cases on the rise nationwide and many people ready to travel to meet loved ones for the holidays or get some sun during a much anticipated winter break, you seem to have a lot of questions. Crosscut can help.

Here are answers to questions we are hearing on social media, in emails and in queries to Northwest Wonders. If your question isn’t answered here, please use the form at the end of this story, and we’ll update the story to include answers to more of our readers’ questions.

On to the questions.

Should we be panicking about omicron?

As of mid-December, the Washington state Department of Health had reported 400 cases of the new COVID-19 omicron variant in the  state. Omicron is now the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But — and this is a big but — while COVID cases are up across the country and in Washington, neither hospitalizations nor deaths are on the rise in our state.

Health officials say this is because vaccines and other preventative measures, such as vaccine requirements for large gatherings, are working. As of Dec. 20, more than 82% of Washington residents age 12 or older had received at least one COVID vaccine and nearly 76% had been fully vaccinated. In King County, 91% of people age 12 or older have had one shot and nearly 85% are fully vaccinated.

The latest from the CDC indicates omicron is spreading more easily than other strains, but epidemiologists do not have enough information yet to say if it’s as dangerous as other strains or more likely to make vaccinated people sick. Some scientists believe, however, that people who have been boosted — received a third vaccine shot — are better protected from the new variant.

The CDC and other public health officials recommend everyone 5 and older get the vaccine. The agency wants everyone who had a Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago to get a booster, as well as anyone who completed their Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shots six months ago.

“Being fully vaccinated is not enough against this evolving virus,” Dr. Umair A. Shah, the state’s secretary of health, said in a statement. “It is absolutely essential that every eligible adult receive a COVID-19 booster as soon as possible. Boosters are necessary and provide an extra layer of protection before seeing friends and family this holiday season.”

How can I get a vaccine or a booster?

The state Department of Health offers a statewide vaccine finder on its website. You can also call the state COVID-19 hotline at 1-800-525-0127, then press #. Help in many different languages is available. Some pharmacies are also offering vaccines to people who just walk in and some bigger vaccine clinics welcome people to line up for a shot.

If you or a friend or family member can’t easily commute to a vaccine site, you can fill out this form on the state Department of Health site, and state officials say they will find someone who can come to your home to give you the vaccine.

The city of Seattle offers vaccine clinic information on its website in several languages. You can also register for a vaccine clinic through King County’s website or in Pierce County. But mass vaccination sites have been closed in Snohomish County. Some of the bigger clinics are closed until the new year, so your local pharmacy or the state vaccine finder may be a better bet during the holidays.

Should I skip indoor gatherings if I’m not boosted?

The state Department of Health continues to recommend that people wear masks indoors, no matter their vaccination status. With the way COVID is starting to spread again, you may want to consider indoor masking even for family gatherings. Remember: Both masks and vaccines are required for large indoor gatherings and sporting events statewide.

Will I need proof of vaccination or a COVID test to travel?

The answer to this question depends on where you are going and how you are getting there. Most airline and airport officials are not checking vaccine status for domestic travel.

The CDC would like you to get vaccinated and tested before you travel. It also recommends making your travel decisions based on the COVID situation in your destination.

But you are not required by law to listen to any of the agency's advice, and you can still travel to most states without meeting any COVID safety criteria, including testing positive for COVID-19. Because cases of the virus are on the rise, some people are canceling trips and staying home for the holidays.

This travel insurance site tracks COVID travel restrictions in every state and lists only a few places where some travel restrictions are currently in place, including Chicago and Kansas. Other states, such as Alaska, have recommended but not instituted mandatory guidelines.

Do I need proof of vaccination to go out to eat or have a drink?

King County requires people 12 and older to show proof of vaccination to eat or drink in a restaurant or bar and to attend indoor entertainment. This is not a statewide requirement, but Washington state does require proof of full vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to attend sporting events or other large gatherings.

Who is enforcing these mandates?

Some places are asking people to show their vaccine cards as they enter the venue or before they sit down at a restaurant. Others are not.

You can enforce the mandates with your feet by walking out of places that do not ask for proof of vaccination. But King County said it also will enforce the mandate in response to citizen complaints. You can fill out this form to report scofflaws. If county officials receive three or more complaints, they will send an inspector to the business. Fines begin at $250 for repeat offenders.

How do I get tested for COVID?

King County and the University of Washington run a number of free public COVID testing sites. County health officials say lines have been longer lately, and they recommend making an appointment first.

Search statewide for testing sites at the Washington Department of Health site. The department said you can also call 2-1-1 to get information about testing sites.

Testing may also be available at your doctor’s office, or you may be able to pick up a home testing kit at your local pharmacy, but in the days leading up to holiday travel, those kits have been very hard to find.

Is Washington state distributing rapid tests?

Updated at 4:15 p.m. on Dec. 22

Washington state hasn’t started distributing free home tests, but the White House has said it would begin distributing 500 million free at-home testing kits through the mail in January. People will be able to order the tests at a website that has yet to be launched.

If you live in Eastern Washington or in Skagit, Cowlitz or Wahkiakum counties, you are eligible for a pilot project distributing home testing kits. Just plug in your Zip code to get started at this website.

How can I get alerted if I’ve been exposed

Washington state offers a free smartphone app called WA Notify, which will alert you if you have been near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Participants in the program are asked to notify the system if they receive a positive test, including results from an at-home test. The app alerts people who were nearby within two weeks of your positive test but does not share whom your potential exposure came from.

What should I do if I get a positive test?

Added Dec. 24 at 8:20 a.m.

The Associated Press offers this explainer to answer exactly that question. The basics: Isolate for 10 days, stay on top of your symptoms and get medical help if you have a weakened immune system, and make sure you tell the people you have been in contact with so they can get tested as well.

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