Washington will soon no longer require people to wear face coverings in health care or correctional facilities, ending the state’s era of indoor masking mandates that have been in place since 2020.
Lifting the requirement will take effect at midnight April 3, the state Department of Health announced Friday. The state dropped the mandate for most other indoor, public spaces last March when the surge in omicron cases started to subside. Now, hospitals, long-term care facilities and adult jails join the list.
“Masks have been – and will continue to be – an important tool, along with vaccinations, to keep people healthy and safe,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah said in a statement. “We are thankful for our health and long-term care providers, staff members, patients, and all Washingtonians, for following the important public health measures put in place during the pandemic to protect one another.”
Oregon joined Washington on Friday in dropping its final indoor masking mandates.
According to the Washington Department of Health, public health leaders made the decision partially because COVID, RSV and influenza rates and hospitalizations have continued to decline since the end of the year.
However, the state’s infection prevention and control guidance and Public Health – Seattle & King County still recommend masks for patients, health care providers and visitors in health care settings. Local or tribal governments, as well as health care facilities or providers, can also still require indoor masking if they choose, the statement said.
In addition, several worker-protection requirements enforced by the state Department of Labor & Industries, including ones that ban “employee retaliation” against those who continue to wear masks on the job, remain in effect, the statement said.
Many of the facilities and organizations affected were still figuring out Friday how to respond to the end of the mandate. At Providence Swedish, hospital leaders said Friday they’re “currently assessing” next steps and will work “through appropriate changes in line with state and federal guidelines.”
State Department of Corrections officials said they expect to have an update on indoor masking policies next week.
“Mask mandates have been a necessary precaution to keep (Department of Correction) employees and incarcerated individuals safe during the last three years,” the DOC said in a statement. “Still, we are excited to see this update from the Department of Health regarding the end of the mask requirements next month.”
State data shows recorded COVID cases have stayed fairly stable since late October, with an uptick around the holidays. Still, epidemiologists have acknowledged the infection data is an undercount because more people are testing at home and the results aren’t reported.
Hospitalizations have been on the decline for the past several weeks, after briefly spiking in late November and early January. As of mid-February, the state averaged around 5.1 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents. During the height of the state’s omicron wave last winter, hospitalizations were averaging around 30 per 100,000.
Cases of influenza, RSV and other respiratory viruses have also dropped in the past few months, after rising to record peaks at the end of 2022. More than 250 people have died from the flu in Washington this flu season, including five children.
The end of the mask mandate also applies to Washington’s approximately 5,000 long-term care facilities. Few environments in the state saw the devastation of the pandemic quite as severely as long-term care facilities, especially the 242 nursing homes. The first signs of COVID-19 in Washington surfaced in nursing homes; Life Care Center of Kirkland was the site of the first outbreak in the United States.
Across Washington, 55% of nursing homes have an active case of COVID among residents or staff in its facilities, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services. But among all long-term care sites, which also include adult family homes and assisted-living facilities, the rate is 5%.
John Ficker, executive director of the Adult Family Home Council, said he suspected a mixed response of celebration and trepidation among members. Across Washington, there are about 4,000 adult family homes, which provide 24-hour care for up to six nonrelated people in a residential setting.
Some homes will continue to encourage or recommend people wear masks, Ficker predicted, as masking wasn’t unheard of before the pandemic. Many residents have weakened immune systems from treatments, medication or illness.
“Operators and staff have learned a tremendous amount about infection control protocols over the last three years,” Ficker wrote in an email. “Regular hand-washing, masking, testing, vaccinations will remain important elements in proper infection controls.”
Ficker said he was less concerned about the end of the mask mandate leading to increased outbreaks in adult family home settings, which are smaller than other health care facilities. Every nursing home and assisted-living facility has reported at least one outbreak since March 2020, according to DSHS data, but only one-third of adult family homes have had COVID cases in their residences.
Masking is still an effective strategy to reduce the risk of becoming infected with COVID, particularly for those 65 and older and anyone with underlying health conditions, King County’s public health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said in a blog post Friday.
“Compared to earlier in the pandemic, we’re in a much better place and COVID-19 is not a major stressor on our fragile health care system … but many remain vulnerable,” Duchin said in the post. “There are no COVID-19 tidal waves on the horizon, but the tide is still relatively high and rogue waves are possible in the future. Don’t turn your back on the water.”