OLYMPIA – Fully vaccinated people in areas of Washington with substantial or high transmission of COVID-19 should wear masks inside public spaces, but Gov. Jay Inslee and health officials are not mandating it.
As the new delta variant spreads throughout the state, Inslee on Wednesday followed new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that recommends everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors if in parts of the state with significant COVID-19 transmission, such as Spokane County.
Cases are rising in Washington, Inslee said, and the state is on the verge of what health officials have called a “fifth wave.”
“Whatever you want to call it, these numbers are going up dramatically,” Inslee said. “That is concerning.”
The delta variant is highly transmissible, Inslee said, and it is now the dominant variant in Washington. Health officials said Wednesday modeling suggests it makes up about 96% of cases in the state.
The mutations of the original COVID-19 virus are “significantly more contagious,” Inslee said.
Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response, said while the CDC hasn’t changed its definition of “close contact” with the delta variant, it is still about twice as transmissible as the first variant.
Someone who is infected with the delta variant can infect twice as many people as someone with the original COVID-19, she said.
A person with the delta variant could infect up to 3.5 or 4 more people, health officials estimate, and the CDC masking recommendation was based on data that show people who are fully vaccinated and test positive with the delta variant have the same viral load as someone who is unvaccinated. Additionally, people with breakthrough cases of the delta variant can transmit the virus in some circumstances, which is why masking is recommended again.
The virus spreads via respiratory particles transmitted through talking, sneezing or coughing, and with the delta variant this happens incredibly efficiently.
“You’re getting exposed to a lot more virus a lot faster – that’s why we’re more concerned about this variant,” Dr. Francisco Velázquez, interim health officer at the Spokane Regional Health District, told reporters on Wednesday.
There are just 28 confirmed sequenced cases of the delta variant in Spokane County, but Velázquez warned that this figure is not reflective of how present the variant is in the community, since only a small percentage of confirmed cases are being sequenced for variants.
“Progress has been slowed because of the delta variant,” Inslee said. “You might think of this as a new virus in some sense.”
Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah told reporters the increased transmission due to the delta variant should “be a wake-up call to all of us.”
While transmission is low among vaccinated people, breakthrough cases can still happen, Fehrenbach said. Getting more people in the state vaccinated can help everyone, she said.
So far, of the more than 4 million Washington residents who are fully vaccinated, just 4,241 people are considered breakthrough cases, or have tested positive again for the virus, according to data from the Department of Health.
The pandemic in Washington is hitting unvaccinated residents hard. New data from the health department show how severe the consequences are among people who have not gotten vaccinated.
From February to June, more than 97% of the cases in the state were in unvaccinated people; 96% of hospitalizations were among people who were not vaccinated, and 94.3% of deaths were in those who were not fully vaccinated.
Wearing a mask indoors could be especially critical because it could protect young children, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Following the CDC’s new indoor mask guidance Tuesday, Nevada immediately reinstated its mask mandate. Earlier this month, Los Angeles County, St. Louis and St. Louis County all reinstated mask mandates. Last week, eight Western Washington counties issued a joint statement recommending masking indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Inslee said Wednesday he did not want to reinstate a statewide mask mandate yet as many people who got vaccinated did so with the hopes they no longer had to wear a mask.
“We wanted to honor that benefit,” he said.
Local and state mask mandates, as well as requiring vaccinations in hospitals or for state government employees, are still being considered, Inslee said.
The CDC also recommended all staff, students and visitors in K-12 public schools wear masks indoors. Washington is already required mask wearing for everyone in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
The school mask mandate is a legal requirement and must be followed, Inslee said.
The school guidance is not a change from the guidance released in May, Fehrenbach said.
There is a possibility the mandate will be revisited, but for now, Inslee said masking in schools is especially important because children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Inslee said it was “maddening” that so many eligible people in Washington have yet to get vaccinated.
Statewide, 67% of residents 12 and older have received at least one dose of a vaccine. In Spokane County, 54.8% of eligible residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine.
A look at local numbers
The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 95 new cases and two additional deaths on Wednesday.
There have been 684 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents since the pandemic began.
There are 46 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane.
The Panhandle Health District confirmed 56 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths.
There are 29 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.
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