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U.S. House COVID committee hears Washington's pandemic story

Almost two years to the day after the first case of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. was confirmed in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee testified before the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis about how the state has responded and the lessons learned.

Inslee was joined on the panel by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser.

“We had the [nation’s] very first case on January 21st, 2020. We had our first death in America which was on February 29th. We started this with no template. We didn’t get to take ideas from Colorado or anywhere else. We were the first and we made some really early decisions that I think have served us well. “Number one; we decided to follow science and the data and our public health experts, and to be very vocal against the profoundly malicious efforts to not spread the truth about this vaccine that have been so damaging. Number two, we made a valued decision that saving lives was our first priority and it should remain unwavering. Third, we made the decision that the best way we could possibly reopen our economy was to knock down the virus. “Now the question is did those strategies work? They worked big time and I want to talk to you about that,” Inslee said.

Relying on science to save lives and safely reopen

In addition to facing the first confirmed case of COVID-19, on February 29, Washington also became the first state with a documented COVID death in the nation. This was the first of over 10,000 deaths Washington has seen to date. It was also the start of a massive public health mobilization that has ultimately saved more than 17,000 Washingtonians.

Experts estimate Washington’s early and ongoing public health actions have prevented the death of approximately 17,000 Washingtonians.

“From day one, we have remained rooted in the hard facts of this pandemic and made decisions based on the best data available and the advice of public health experts. When data pointed to places where COVID-19 transmission was happening or activities that amplified the spread of COVID-19, we adopted mitigation measures to help turn the tide.” — Written testimony from Gov. Jay Inslee

In both his opening remarks and written testimony, Inslee emphasized that Washington state’s response was grounded in science and the expert advice of public health experts with the abiding priority of saving lives. He noted the key to economic recovery lies in suppressing the virus as quickly as possible and that continued diligence in masking and vaccination efforts are critical.

Economic impacts have varied across states. Washington state has shown that a state can enact strong public health measures and promote a strong economic recovery.

Inslee attributed the state’s success in bending the curve during the initial wave to early actions that limited gatherings and non-essential business interactions and required face masks. As testing and vaccinations became available, the state developed safe reopening plans, and launched a concerted outreach effort with trusted community leaders and messengers from vaccine-hesitant communities.

“Ultimately, no intervention is as important as vaccination. Since the rollout of vaccines began in December of 2020, we have made great strides in getting our population vaccinated and we remain one of the highest vaccinated states in the nation. As of January 18, nearly 80% of Washington adults are fully vaccinated and over 50% of the eligible population have received a booster.”

Inslee also credited the state’s vaccination requirement for state employees and public and private health care and long-term care workers with bolstering vaccination rates. As of Dec. 31, 2021, the vaccination rate among the state’s workforce nearly doubled from under 50 percent to nearly 96 percent.

“We took these actions to protect the lives of our state workers, make it safer for Washingtonians to receive state services, and ensure long-term continuity of operations at our state agencies.”

Today, Inslee and public health leaders remain focused on vaccinations, tests and face masks, with special attention to ensuring equitable access for the state’s most vulnerable or disproportionately impacted Washingtonians.

With the emergence of the more transmittable Omicron variant, Inslee announced earlier this month that the state is releasing about 10 million more protective masks from our state supply for distribution into local communities, including through K-12 schools, local governments, nonprofits and businesses, and local health departments. More than 5 million of those masks have already been distributed in the last two weeks.

The state is also ramping up efforts to improve access to rapid at-home antigen tests.

Earlier this month, Inslee and the state Department of Health announced that the state’s order of 5.5 million additional at-home tests. Washingtonians will soon be able to order at-home tests at no cost through a new state web portal, and the state will send approximately 1 million tests to K-12 schools and another 1 million tests to local health and community organizations in order to reach priority populations.

Inslee emphasized during his testimony that masks, vaccinations and testing have been — and remains — crucial to safe reopening of schools and businesses.

“We believe the fastest way to spur economic recovery and growth is by suppressing this virus and keeping everyone safe,” Inslee said.

“It is not done with us yet”

The governor noted the federal government’s help is still needed. Supplies like tests, PPE, vaccine boosters, and therapeutics will be necessary to keeping communities safe.

Inslee also called on congressional leaders to provide more support for behavioral health needs. He noted the mental and psychological toll of the pandemic is impossible to ignore and must be an integral part of how the nation supports a healthy recovery.

“While much of our focus is on the backlog of physical health issues confronting our communities, the pandemic has also taken a significant toll on the emotional and mental health of each of us individually, and collectively as a nation. We need to bolster our behavioral health infrastructure so we can provide the care that people need and deserve.”

Inslee said continuing to look for guidance from public health experts and investment in public health will not only help bring an end to the current pandemic, but it will equip the nation to respond to future health threats.

“I applaud the efforts of this Committee to record the experiences of experts and leaders during this tumultuous time. I would ask you to also remember this remains an ongoing emergency, and one that could be repeated if we do not stay the course on the public health measures that have proven to prevent the spread of the virus,” Inslee said. “We must continue to heed the guidance of our public health experts, and the pleas of our health care workers. We must expand our public health infrastructure in the U.S. Our success at concluding this response soon, and preparing for others, rests on the ability of all levels of government to quickly respond in appropriate scale to the evolving threat approaching our population. “Despite how many of us have grown weary of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not done with us yet — and we must stay the course to ensure it never roars back again.”