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Should you cancel your New Year’s party? Washington health officials talk COVID-19 guidelines, CDC, reopening schools

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 30, 2021

Thousands watch as fireworks explode over Riverfront Park at precisely 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve in Spokane on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Thousands watch as fireworks explode over Riverfront Park at precisely 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve in Spokane on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

With rising concerns about increasing COVID-19 cases statewide and the confirmed presence of the omicron variant in Spokane County, should you cancel your plans for a gathering to celebrate the new year?

It depends on your situation, advised Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, chief science officer for the Washington State Department of Health.

The question was among several asked of Kwan-Gett and Lacy Fehrenbach, the health department’s deputy secretary for COVID-19 response, during a media availability Thursday.

For people with high-risk family members, such as those who are older or immunocompromised, Kwan-Gett said they may want to consider staying home and limiting their actions.

“I don’t think this is something that we say everybody should cancel their New Year’s plans,” Kwan-Gett said. “I do think that everybody needs to be aware that the omicron variant is highly contagious – much more contagious than the delta variant.”

On the eve of New Year’s Eve, the Spokane Regional Health District reported 207 new cases of COVID-19. There were no new deaths.

Thursday’s report indicated there are 69 individuals hospitalized in Spokane, up from 65 on Wednesday.

The Panhandle Health District, meanwhile, reported 139 new cases Thursday and no new deaths. The district covers Bonner, Benewah, Boundary, Shoshone and Kootenai counties.

As of Thursday, there were 60 people hospitalized due to COVID-19 within the district.

The half-hour media availability session saw Kwan-Gett and Fehrenbach take questions from media members across the state.

Here are some of the notable topics and responses:

Federal COVID-19 guidelines

The new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide that people who test positive for COVID-19 should isolate for five days.

Then, if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving, the guidance advises five more days of wearing a mask when around others.

Previous guidance called for 10 days of isolation.

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “one of the things we want to be careful of is that we don’t have so many people out.”

“I mean, obviously if you have symptoms you should (be out),” said Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, “but if you are asymptomatic and you are infected, we want to get people back to jobs – particularly those with essential jobs to keep our society running smoothly.”

Fehrenbach defended the change in the guidance, emphasizing that the regulations are “grounded in science,” not economic or business reasons.

“The majority of transmission does occur early in the course of illness,” she said. “So this transition for shortened isolation and quarantine is grounded in science and also helps society keep running, and that is also important in a pandemic.”

Reopening schools

Amid the trending case levels, the decisions to move temporarily to remote learning in K-12 schools and colleges will not be based so much on state metrics or thresholds, Fehrenbach said.

Rather, state health officials are telling districts and administrators to handle the outbreak based on the situation in the school.

Citing the value of keeping children in school, Fehrenbach said schools are encouraged to “handle it on the lowest level possible.”

For instance, if there’s an outbreak that only affects a classroom, then the remote learning transition should be limited to just that classroom. If it’s multiple classrooms, then the change might come to the entire school. If it’s multiple schools, that could lead to a districtwide transition, she said.

With K-12 schools, the health department defines the threshold for a spread to qualify as an “outbreak” as three cases, or 10% of a core group. Examples of a “core group” include a classroom, an extracurricular activity or an afterschool care group.

“We, based on evolving science throughout the pandemic, really pivoted as a state in the spring of last year to really emphasize keeping kids in school so long as it was safe as possible to do so,” Fehrenbach said, “and felt that we could do that in the midst of high disease based on the very strong protection we have with layered mitigation measures that are required in Washington state.”

Some local colleges and universities have announced adjustments ahead of reopening for their upcoming semesters.

Gonzaga University on Thursday announced vaccinated students and staff will be required to get a booster shot when eligible. All students are required to get tested for COVID-19 within 48 hours of returning to campus. Whitworth University, meanwhile, has moved the first week of classes online for most “Jan Term” courses.

Federal at-home tests

The White House has announced plans to purchase and mail as many as 500 million at-home COVID-19 test kits to people for free starting in January. A website is in the works to take requests for the tests.

Fehrenbach said Department of Health officials do not believe the state will be involved with the actual distribution of the tests. Health officials are, nevertheless, hoping to get a sense from the federal government about the number of tests coming to Washington, Ferenbach said.

She added that the state is looking into ways to similarly provide at-home tests, particularly for low-income families or those who aren’t tech savvy, through community-based groups or local public health organizations.

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