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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington to expand at-home testing, provide free masks as omicron spreads

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee puts on a mask after speaking at a news conference Aug. 18, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Associated Press)
By Laurel Demkovich and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Washington state will distribute millions of free at-home COVID-19 tests and masks in hopes of slowing the wave of omicron cases.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the new measures Wednesday, including expanding vaccination clinics.

The coronavirus variant is “rapidly overtaking” infection numbers in Washington, Inslee said.

Inslee did not announce any restrictions or closures. Instead, he said the state will focus on expanding testing, increasing access to vaccines and providing free masks .

The state will make at-home tests available through a web portal where residents can have them sent to their home for no charge. The portal will be up and running by mid-January, according to his office.

Washington received 800,000 at-home tests this week, with another 4.7 million expected this month. These tests were ordered by the Department of Health and are in addition to what the state may receive from the federal government in the coming weeks.

One million of those tests will go to school districts that request them, and another million will go to local health jurisdictions.

The state expects to pay about $50 million on the tests , said Lacy Fehrenbach, Department of Health deputy secretary for COVID response.

The demand for at-home tests is high right now, Fehrenbach said, but they can still be found at some pharmacies or online. People should treat at-home tests “like a Band-Aid,” she said.

“Plan ahead, order them now, so you have tests next week or later in the month when you need them,” she said.

Demand for testing has continued to increase in Spokane County.

Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez said the health district is working with Discovery Health MD, the organization operating the county’s community testing sites, to expand services. The sites are accessible via drive-thru four days a week.

Velázquez did not have specifics on when testing options locally will be expanded, but he said the district is working on consumer-based testing options.

There is free testing at the community-based drive-thru sites, at some local libraries and some local pharmacies . Otherwise, testing might cost you. Velazquez said local pharmacies have some at-home antigen tests in stock.

These kits can cost from $10 for a single test to $24 for a pack of two tests or much more, depending on the type and where purchased.

Health officials are asking residents who test positive using an at-home test to report their positive result to the Department of Health so local officials can conduct contact tracing. Call (800) 525-0127 to report a positive COVID test result.

Other steps are being taken to slow the spread of omicron as well.

The state will release about 10 million masks of different varieties, including KN95 and surgical masks. The masks will come from the state supply and will be distributed through local health departments, local and state emergency management, and school districts.

Local emergency management and local health departments will work with the community to get both masks and tests to people who need them.

More details on how the public can access both the tests and masks are forthcoming, Fehrenbach said.

Some masks are more effective than others. KN95 masks or double masking with a surgical mask can be more effective than just a cloth mask.

“Wearing a mask is good. Wearing a better mask is better,” Inslee said.

Because of the availability of vaccines, testing and masking, and because of early indications that illness from omicron is less severe , Inslee said he decided not to order rollbacks or closures.

He is expecting some staffing shortages in “every system” in the coming weeks, as omicron spreads . It can lead to “frustrating days,” but the state’s main focus right now is making sure kids can stay in school, Inslee said.

“We have to do everything we can to maintain as much in-person instruction as possible, which this wave of cases will make more difficult,” Inslee said.

Another focus is hospitals, which Fehrenbach said are already in “a place of extreme strain” and will face “a really challenging few weeks ahead.”

To support hospitals, health officials are encouraging everyone to avoid using the emergency room unless it is truly and emergency care. If there is a mild injury or illness, use primary or urgent care, Fehrenbach said.

Spokane County recorded another large daily case count, with 669 new cases reported by the Spokane Regional Health District on Wednesday. The number of local hospitalizations has also increased this week from less than 70 patients with COVID-19 being treated for the virus at the start of the week to 89 patients .

This increase is in line with the omicron variant driving case counts up statewide. Between 6-12% of positive samples are sequenced in Spokane County, and so far sequencing has only led to two confirmed omicron cases. Statewide, however, omicron has overtaken delta as the most detected variant in the most recent week for which data is available.

In the last full week of December, omicron samples made up 83.5% of all cases sequenced, while the delta variant made up 16% .

Despite escalating case counts and hospitalizations, Velázquez does not plan to implement vaccine requirements at restaurants or bars, or other restrictions similar to what King County health officials have done.

Here’s a look at local numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 669 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths.

There are 89 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Spokane .

The Panhandle Health District reported 147 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths.

There are 80 Panhandle residents hospitalized with COVID-19, and Kootenai Health is caring for 56 patients with the virus.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.