OLYMPIA – Washington is not lifting its indoor mask mandate just yet, but an end date is near, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.
As other Democratic-led states, such as California and Illinois, set end dates for their mandates, Inslee said Washington is not quite ready, but the conversations to end it are happening. A date for the end of the indoor mask mandate likely will come next week, he said.
“It is no longer a matter of if,” Inslee said. “It is a question of when.”
As COVID-19 case rates continue to decline, Inslee said Washington is entering a transition period.
Inslee announced Wednesday the mask requirement for large outdoor events will lift on Feb. 18. Inslee also announced the National Guard is no longer needed at hospitals, and restrictions on less critical procedures will lift Feb. 17.
The National Guard sent a nonmedical team to Sacred Heart Medical Center earlier this year to help with the omicron surge, specifically in the emergency room.
Guard members are helping with nonclinical tasks, from stocking supplies to cleaning rooms and assisting in contact tracing. The team is set to leave Spokane on Feb. 19.
When hospitals were dealing with major capacity issues last month, Inslee halted all nonemergent procedures and surgeries in hospitals statewide to make more room for patients needing care due to the omicron surge.
Some hospitals have recently said they are ready to start these procedures again, especially the more urgent ones that might become serious the longer they are delayed. Next Thursday, hospitals will be allowed to start bringing back those patients.
Inslee said lifting the indoor mask mandate, which has been in effect since August, will be a statewide approach rather than a regional one.
Inslee also said he likely will lift the mask mandate for K-12 schools at the same time he lifts the general mask mandate, but he has not made that decision yet.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal released a statement Wednesday urging the governor and the Department of Health to lift the mask mandate for schools in the coming weeks. As case rates fall, Reykdal said the decision to mask should be local, allowing individual districts to make their own decisions about mandates.
“This change will empower schools to better focus their valuable time on supporting our students’ learning and well-being recovery and acceleration,” Reykdal said.
Although case rates continue to decline, Inslee said he needs one more week of data to be sure the trends continue before choosing an end date to the mandate. Current projections show a “very steep decline” that Inslee said could lead to “extremely low numbers by the first week of March.”
“But omicron clearly has characteristics that will allow us to lift mitigation measures with weeks to come, rather than months,” Inslee said.
The state is coming off of the most recent omicron variant wave, but numbers aren’t quite low enough to remove a mask mandate, he said. The state has reached its case rate peak, but case, hospitalization and death rates differ between Western and Eastern Washington. Health officials have said Eastern Washington numbers would lag a week or two behind those in Western Washington, where cases are decreasing more rapidly.
Cases are declining in Western Washington and appear to be on the beginning of a descent in Eastern Washington as well, according to state data. In Spokane County, the seven-day case rate is 1,740 cases per 100,000 residents. In King County, that same rate is at 967 cases per 100,000 residents in the last week.
Inslee said his decision to wait to remove the mask mandate is based on public health, adding he “will not be stampeded by other states.” Despite a number of states announcing ends to their mask mandates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Biden administration have advised to keep mask mandates.
Inslee said Washington officials listen to the CDC “intensely” when making their decisions, and this week was not the time to change the mandate.
Local health officials and hospital leaders in Washington have urged against lifting the mandate just yet.
Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez told reporters that the county is probably peaking or has peaked in its omicron surge. That said, cases are still higher than seen even during the delta wave.
Velázquez said the county is not at the point where a mask mandate should be lifted, and he said it is important to not relax public health measures too early.
“We’re not there yet, because our numbers are still very high; the eastern side of the state runs 10 to 14 days behind west side of the state,” he said.
He is hopeful the region will see the downward trends in the coming weeks.
Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response, said the state is looking at a number of aspects, not just case rates. Those include hospitalizations and any new variants that may be coming.
“We certainly don’t want to see, and at the moment we don’t, a new variant that’s on the horizon,” Fehrenbach said.
Here’s a look at local numbers
The Spokane Regional Health District reported 473 new COVID-19 cases and one additional death on Wednesday.
There have been 1,240 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.
Local hospitalization data was not available on Wednesday.
The Panhandle Health District reported 266 new COVID-19 cases and one additional death.
There have been 861 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents.
There are 101 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.