WA and Seattle ended their COVID states of emergency. What's next?

Do any restrictions remain in place? Can I still get tests and vaccines? How do I protect myself from the virus?

former mayor jenny durkan stands next to current mayor bruce harrell both wearing blue surgical masks

A masked Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell appear on a panel during a press conference at Lumen Field in Seattle in this Dec. 15, 2021, file photo. October 31 marks the end of COVID-19 states of emergency at the state level and in the city of Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson/Crosscut)

On Feb. 29, 2020, the same day the state reported the first U.S. death from the COVID-19 virus, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for Washington. Three days later, Seattle’s then-Mayor Jenny Durkan followed suit with an emergency proclamation for the city. The orders gave the executive branches power to swiftly implement pandemic responses: stay-at-home orders for non-essential workers, bans on large gatherings and much, much more.

Oct. 31, 2022 marked the end of those states of emergency at the state level and in the city of Seattle. Most restrictions had already been phased out, both because of improvements in pandemic conditions and political pressure to do so. Another 23 orders from the governor’s office ended this month.

But COVID-19 remains a problem in Washington. There are still 600 new cases popping up every day and more than 40 deaths each week, according to state health department data. As we enter this next phase of the pandemic, here’s what you need to know.

What restrictions and programs remain?

The state Department of Health’s mask mandate for all health care and long-term care facilities is still in place, meaning everyone must wear a mask at doctor and dentist offices, in hospitals and other medical facilities. The mandate also requires masking in correctional facilities when COVID-19 transmission levels are medium or high.

Department of Labor and Industries’ workplace coronavirus rules are also still in effect. Employers must keep employees out of the workplace for at least five days if they test positive for COVID-19 or are symptomatic. Employers must also ensure that anyone providing care to or working near someone who’s tested positive has access to adequate personal protective equipment and handwashing facilities; they must notify employees of COVID-19 exposures at work; and they cannot discriminate against high-risk employees seeking coronavirus accommodation, among other requirements.

State employees are still required to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. But they will not be required to get boosted. City of Seattle employees, volunteers and contractors will also still be required to be vaccinated.

Several of Seattle’s pandemic-era policies and programs are being phased out after the end of the emergency proclamation.

During the pandemic, commercial landlords were required to negotiate payment plans with their tenants to limit evictions. That requirement remains in place until the end of April 2023.

Residential landlords are required to provide their tenants with a payment plan for any back rent accrued because of pandemic hardship. That remains in place for another six months as well.

Residents who fell behind on Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities bills during the pandemic are able to apply for repayment plans. That program will continue until Dec. 31, 2023.

Gig workers in Seattle, including food-delivery workers and rideshare drivers, were entitled to paid sick leave. That program is set to end at the end of April 2023. A new state law providing paid sick leave for rideshare drivers begins in January.

What about food stamps?

Section added on Nov. 2 in response to a reader question.

During the pandemic, Congress allocated COVID relief funding to increase the size of people’s monthly food assistance allocation. According to the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), Washington households enrolled in the food assistance program got an average of $175 extra dollars each month, depending on household size.

The federal assistance was contingent on states’ having an active COVID emergency declaration meaning that additional extra food stamp money for Washington residents was set to expire at the end of November. But, according to a spokesperson from DSHS, there is a possibility Washington will be able to continue distributing the federal benefits as long as the federal emergency order is in place. The federal order is currently set to expire Jan. 11, 2023. DSHS will submit a declaration to the federal government to continue the extended benefits on a month-to-month basis.

Can I still get tested and vaccinated?

Yes, you can.

The city of Seattle transitioned management of its COVID-19 testing sites to Curative and the University of Washington in July 2021. But many of those sites remain in operation, with testing available for no out-of-pocket costs for people with insurance. Curative no longer provides tests for people without insurance in all locations, but the University of Washington testing sites are open to everyone regardless of immigration status and whether or not they have insurance.

You can also still get free home test kits through the state’s program, and you can place a new order each month. Federal law also requires private insurers to reimburse people for up to eight home tests per month.

COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are also still available for every Washington resident six months and older. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated and that everyone ages 5 and older get boosted after they complete their initial vaccines.

The new Omicron variant-specific booster, also known as the bivalent booster, is now available in Washington. You can find vaccine locations through the state portal.

According to state data, nearly 70% of residents statewide have completed their first round of vaccines. Nearly 60% of eligible residents have received some sort of booster shot. And just 15.6% of eligible residents have gotten the bivalent booster so far.

What should I do to protect myself?

The advice for staying safe from the virus remains the same: Get vaccinated, wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, increase ventilation and airflow when possible, test yourself if you’re worried you’ve been exposed to the virus or if you are planning to gather with people.

Dr. Eric Chow, a King County Public Health epidemiologist, said getting vaccinated and boosted is still the best way to protect yourself, loved ones and high-risk individuals from serious complications and death. He also recommended people that wear high-quality, well-fitting masks such as N95s and KN95s. If you’re having people over for indoor gatherings, opening windows can help with airflow and ventilation.

Chow also recommends people get their flu shot to help mitigate the impact of that virus this winter.

Can I still trust COVID-19 data? How will we know cases are on the rise?

COVID-19 tracking has gotten less reliable as many people have turned to home testing that doesn’t get reported to official sources, while others have foregone any testing at all. Official case-count data are very likely undercounting the virus’s prevalence.

But, said Chow, the important thing for public health officials to track is whether case counts are trending up or down. One way they can still do that is through hospital case tracking. Most hospitals are still testing every patient who comes in for coronavirus, whether they’re there for a broken arm or because of complications from COVID-19. Those hospital trends help public health officials get a sense of the broader prevalence of COVID-19 in the community and make decisions accordingly.

What happens if case counts spike again?

Officials at the state and city level say they will continue to work with public health officials to monitor the virus and implement health and safety measures accordingly if case counts become a problem.

Some public health officials around the country are worried this winter will bring a three-way spike in COVID-19, flu cases and cases of respiratory syncytial virus — all the more reason to keep health precautions in mind even as the government takes a step back in its pandemic role.

UPDATE: This article was updated with information on the extension of Washington's pandemic-era food assistance benefit. 

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