OLYMPIA – Removing the mask mandate in Kootenai County endangers Washington residents across the border, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday.
Although Washington hasn’t actively considered restrictions on people coming back and forth across the border, Inslee added he “can’t rule it out.”
During a news conference at which he announced Washington was joining three other states in setting up a review panel for any vaccine that receives approval by the Food and Drug Administration, Inslee urged people to wear masks even in private social settings because of rising case numbers.
The Spokane Regional Health District reported 113 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total number of cases to 9,486. There were 47 patients in Spokane area hospitals with COVID-19, with 44 of them being Spokane County residents. One patient died of the virus, bringing the total fatalities in the county to 198.
The Panhandle Health District reported 97 new cases, bringing the total number of cases to 5,185. There were 37 patients hospitalized with the virus.
He compared Washington’s infection rates to higher rates in Idaho and said last week’s decision by the Panhandle Health District to remove the mask mandate it had enacted on Kootenai County was “very troubling to me.”
It comes at a time when Idaho hospitals are filling up and may have to send patients to Washington, he added.
“We will continue to help them. Their losses are ours,” Inslee said.
Kootenai Health has not transferred any patients to Spokane due to capacity in the last week, nor have they had to decline patient transfers from surrounding critical access hospitals in the Idaho Panhandle.
Those transfers could be possible in the future, however, if capacity is overwhelmed.
The medical-surgical bed capacity at Kootenai health was at 97% on Tuesday afternoon. The hospital is caring for 39 COVID-19 patients, with 13 requiring critical care.
Restricting traffic across the border would be difficult because so many people move back and forth every day, he said.
“We have not actively considered that as an option, at least at the moment,” he said in answer to a question. “Obviously you can’t rule it out in the future given other circumstances.”
Inslee said he was trying to encourage Idaho to join Washington in requiring masks because what one state does has “a profound effect” across the border. His staff later said he hadn’t been briefed that the Coeur d’Alene City Council voted Monday afternoon to require masks in that city in response to the Panhandle Health District’s move.
“I don’t want to sound too judgmental but in a sense I am,” he said. “Every death in Spokane County, when thinking it might’ve come from Idaho when Idaho is not joining us in wearing masks – that’s very painful to me.”
Washington is joining California, Oregon and Nevada in setting up an independent panel of experts to review the safety and effectiveness of any COVID-19 vaccine approved by the FDA. Because the agency and the pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines have been more open about the processes they’ve developed and protocols they’ve followed, the panel’s review may only take a few days after FDA approval, he said.
The panel is an effort to increase the public confidence in any vaccine that is released after some questions about political pressure to develop it quickly.
While a high percentage of the population would need to be vaccinated to control the pandemic, Inslee said the state has had no discussions about mandating the vaccine for the general public, It also has not discussed requiring it for school children like some other vaccines are currently required unless a student has medical or religious reasons not to be vaccinated.
Staff writer Arielle Dreher contributed to this report.
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