Submitted by the Whatcom County Health Department

Whatcom County, we are in the Omicron surge. We are seeing several hundred cases every day and new daily and weekly records have been set and broken multiple times this week alone. It’s time to get Back to Basics and review what we know about COVID-19.


Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus, and can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms can include: fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath,  difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. 

Symptoms of the Omicron variant are very similar to the common cold, and anyone displaying any cold-like symptoms should get tested.

Covid-19 Testing

We know it’s challenging to get a test right now, and changes are in the works to increase testing for people with symptoms or exposure to COVID-19. 

In the meantime, if you can’t get either a PCR test or a rapid test, assume you have COVID-19 and stay home. Isolate for 5 days after your symptoms start. If you don’t have symptoms on day 5, the next day you can leave your home. K-12 schools, health care workers, and people living in congregate settings have different guidance, so these general guidelines don’t apply to those situations. See next section for more info on isolation and quarantine.

Remember, a negative COVID-19 test is just a snapshot of your COVID-19 status at one moment in time. It is possible to have a negative COVID-19 test one day, and then have a positive result a few days later. If you have a negative test and you have symptoms or you’ve been exposed, continue to stay at home for a full five days.  

Our local hospital, PeaceHealth St. Joseph, asks that you do NOT go to the ER seeking a COVID-19 test. They need to keep their capacity for serious and life-threatening emergencies.

For more info on testing, visit: whatcomcounty.us/covidtesting

Isolation and Quarantine

The CDC’s general guidance for isolation and quarantine periods has recently changed. Check out our quick reference summary of the new guidelines.

  • Remember that isolation is for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have COVID-19 symptoms. Quarantine is for people who have been exposed to the virus.
  • The new guidelines apply to the general population and most workplaces. Isolation and quarantine guidelines for certain workplaces and congregate settings have not changed for the time being.
  • The Washington State Department of Health recently released new guidance for K-12 schools. Please have patience with schools as they transition to these new guidelines. They are doing their best in very challenging and rapidly changing circumstances.


There are a lot of reports about Omicron’s so-called “mild” infections and how it’s infecting vaccinated people. This is leading some people to question the usefulness of vaccines.

First, let’s talk about the perception that Omicron infections are mild. Early data do suggest that a lower percentage of Omicron infections result in severe cases of COVID-19 (severe is defined as needing supplemental oxygen in a hospital). However, the huge number of cases means that the number of hospitalizations is also rising. The Omicron variant is causing a massive strain on our local health care system, and our local hospital is caring for record numbers of patients with COVID-19. Cases are expected to continue rising for several weeks, and hospitalizations probably will, too. 

Next, let’s talk about whether the vaccines are still effective against Omicron. The answer is yes. Although breakthrough cases are possible, the COVID-19 vaccines continue to be highly effective at their main job: keeping people from being seriously ill with COVID-19. The vast majority of people being hospitalized because of COVID-19 are unvaccinated. 

Although 75% of eligible Whatcom residents have gotten at least one dose of vaccine (thank you!), there are still 51,000 residents who aren’t yet vaccinated. Please, go and get vaccinated. And if you’re eligible for a booster shot, get boosted. Booster shots give you the greatest amount of protection against Omicron infections, but even getting the first two doses of Moderna or Pfizer can reduce severe COVID-19 and hospitalization by over 80 percent. 

To find a vaccine provider near you, visit VaccineLocator.doh.wa.gov. For more information about vaccines: whatcomcounty.us/covidvaccine

Mask Use  

We’re seeing a dramatic rise in cases, and from what we know so far, it appears that the new Omicron variant is much more transmissible than previous strains. We recommend that you use the best mask you can to protect yourself and those around you from COVID-19.

  • KN95s, KF-94s, or 3-ply surgical masks offer better protection than a cloth mask.
  • If your mask has gaps and doesn’t fit snugly against your face, you can tie a knot in the ear loops where they touch your face or you can double mask to improve the fit.

When to Seek Emergency Medical Attention

COVID-19 cases in Whatcom County are the highest they’ve ever been. Unfortunately, you might end up being infected even though you’ve taken precautions. If you have COVID-19,  know when you should seek emergency medical attention. If you have any of the following symptoms, call 911 or head to your local emergency medical facility immediately: 

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion
  • Blue or gray-colored skin on lips and/or face. 

*This list is not all possible symptoms. Please call your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning to you.

Reminder: do NOT go to the emergency room with mild symptoms or to ask for a COVID-19 test. Our local hospital is caring for a record number of patients with COVID-19, and asks everyone to only go to the ER with serious or life-threatening emergencies.

Return to Work 

You do not need a negative test to return to work unless specified by your employer. Follow the new isolation and quarantine guidelines to know when you can return to work.

The new isolation and quarantine guidelines DO NOT apply to the following work places and settings:

  • Commercial maritime settings such as commercial seafood and cargo ships
  • Crowded work sites where physical distancing is not possible due to the nature of the work, such as in warehouses, factories, and food packaging and meat processing facilities
  • Correctional facilities
  • Health care settings
  • Homeless shelters and transitional housing
  • Temporary worker housing
  • Schools and childcare
  • Institutions of higher education

For the most recent isolation and quarantine guidance for health care workers, please review the CDC’s updated interim guidance for managing health care personnel with COVID-19 infection or exposure. 

If you work in any of the settings listed above (with the exception of health care), please follow the isolation guidelines below:

  • Symptomatic workers must remain in isolation until:
  • It’s been at least 24 hours with no fever without using fever-reducing medication.
  • Their symptoms have improved.
  • It’s been at least 10 days since their symptoms started.
  • Asymptomatic workers must remain in isolation until: 
  • It’s been at least 10 days from the date of their first positive COVID-19 test.
  • They have had no further symptoms.

*You do not need a negative test to return to work unless specified by your employer.

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