What to know about Washington state's ‘tripledemic’

December 19, 2022 at 1:08 p.m.
Fremont's beloved piece of public art, "Waiting for the Interurban," was dressed up with face masks in April 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)
Fremont's beloved piece of public art, "Waiting for the Interurban," was dressed up with face masks in April 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

...by Donna Gordon Blankinship / Crosscut.com

     

Don’t stock up on toilet paper, but you may want to make sure you have some decent masks on hand. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, and other respiratory viruses are spreading rapidly.



But misinformation and confusion are also swirling in the air.



Crosscut is here to help. We’ll start by answering the questions we hear everyone asking. Please use the form at the end of this story to send us additional questions, and we’ll do our best to add more information in the days and weeks ahead.


   
   

How worried should I be?



While the talk on social media is encouraging renewed panic about COVID-19, health data in Washington state indicates case numbers have been stable and relatively low since last January. Our hospitals are not filled with COVID patients, and the statewide death rate remains below one a day. Some of this data is harder to track these days because people who test at home are not all reporting their positive results to their doctors or to the state tracking app, WA Notify.



Health officials are very concerned, however, about something people are calling the “tripledemic,” COVID plus the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The Washington Department of Health reports the spread of flu is very high at this time, and 26 people have died from the flu this season. And as parents of young children and daycare providers will tell you, RSV is a constant fear or a reality for many. Young children, older adults and people with compromised immune systems are more likely to get very sick or develop medical problems from this virus. State health officials reported earlier this week that RSV cases may be on a downward trend in Washington, while the flu is on the rise.



Do I need to wear a mask?



Neither the state nor Washington counties mandate mask-wearing at this time, but health officials are strongly advising everyone to wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask, such as a KN95 or N95, when around other people indoors as a hedge against COVID-19, the flu and RSV.



Masks are still required in Washington medical facilities, long-term care facilities and prisons.



If you’re unsure how to find a high-quality mask, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a guide to masks approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.



Where can I get tested?



Most people who have symptoms or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 are now testing at home. The federal government reopened its portal for ordering free home tests last week. They’re also available from the state and from some health insurance companies.



If you require a more accurate in-person PCR test,they are still available — though not as widely as before. The state maintains a list of active testing sites.



The state advises testing for the following reasons: When you’re experiencing possible COVID symptoms; when you’ve had a known exposure to someone who tested positive; before and after traveling; and when you’re planning to gather with a group of people, especially when they may be at risk of several complications.



The Department of Labor and Industries also has workplace guidance on coronavirus. Employers are required to keep employees out of the workplace for at least five days if they test positive for COVID-19 or are symptomatic.

Is another lockdown coming?



No one in Washington state government is speaking publicly about whether they are considering another stay-home order like the one mandated early in the pandemic. But we can assume they are making contingency plans in case numbers skyrocket this winter.



For now, health officials are advising everyone to mask up indoors in group settings and to make sure they’re up-to-date on their vaccines.



How can I get vaccinated?



State and federal health officials recommend that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated and boosted. Vaccines are not as easy to find as they were at the height of the pandemic. You may need to make an appointment rather than just walk in, but health officials say vaccination and masking are still the best way to avoid hospitalization and death during this lingering pandemic.



You can find vaccine locations through this state portal, and if you’re lucky you can nab a vaccine at your local pharmacy or your doctor’s office. Health officials are practically begging people to get a flu shot at the same time, since the flu is spreading rapidly right now.



According to state data, more than 70% of residents statewide have completed their first round of vaccines, and 60% of eligible residents have received some sort of booster shot. About 27% of eligible residents have gotten the bivalent booster so far.



Will our kids be going back to school in January? Should they be?



The flu and RSV are more likely to make school and daycare students sick than COVID-19, but as any healthcare official will tell you, the future is unknown. Over the holidays, families and friends will be gathering, and that will increase their chances of getting sick from any kind of virus.



Last January was the biggest peak in COVID cases in 2022, by far. Will another peak happen in January 2023? No one really knows. In the meantime, health officials are encouraging us to get vaccinated for the flu and COVID, mask up indoors when gathering with groups, and stay home when you are sick, even if you think you only have a cold.




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