“We’ve Had Lots of Reports of People Not Wearing Face Masks”: On the Eve of King County’s Move Into Phase Two, Coronavirus Cases On the Rise

by Carolyn Bick

King County has moved into Phase Two of Washington State’s Safe Start reopening plan, even as the number of novel coronavirus cases have increased.

In a briefing on June 19, Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin of Public Health — Seattle & King County shared that the evening before the briefing, the office had learned that cases had increased 47 percent. He said the department learned of this after Duchin had approved the county’s application to move into Phase Two. 

Though the increase did not translate into much of a real-number uptick — Duchin said that the 47 percent increase represented 113 more cases this week than last week — Duchin said the cases mainly occurred in young adults, likely because more people are going out and spending time together without proper protective measures.

However, he said, echoing the findings from elsewhere in the country, the increase has not been attributed to protests, and that most of the transmission is driven by household contact, essential work, and long-term care facility personnel. Still, he said that other King County residents’ current behavior is not helping the situation.

“We see large clustering at workplaces, we know people are out and about for social reasons. We see people in restaurants, and doing lots of things in close proximity, closer than we would like, based on the six-foot rule that present opportunities for transmission,” Duchin said. “We’ve also had lots of reports of people not wearing face masks.”

Though the jump from Phase 1.5 to Phase Two was “relatively small,” Duchin said, it still means Seattleites need to be more vigilant.

“There’s a misimpression in the community that because we’re moving forward, the risk is lower and that we can relax a little bit. But, in fact, it’s just the opposite,” Duchin said. “As we begin to do more, and we begin to have more activities, we always know the risk will be increased, and we may see more cases … and we are going to need to double down on our efforts to prevent the spread of COVID transmission, so that we can continue to move forward.”

Duchin also cautioned that people need to remember that this virus is not going away. Though he expects its impact will be lessened over time, the virus will be with us for years, he said. A viable vaccine is likely “months away, maybe many months away, maybe years away,” he said.

“More therapies will undoubtedly be developed that will allow people to be treated, even if they develop serious illnesses,” Duchin said. “But this disease is not going to disappear. So, yes, we will be needing to grapple with it, and I think it will fundamentally require us to reconfigure our lives in many ways — in the way we interact with one other.”

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press conference on June 17 that he will not rule out moving counties back into earlier phases and mandate mask wearing, if need be. However, he did not specify what would prompt him to do so, saying instead that such decisions would be based on the variety of factors state health officials are using to track cases of the virus throughout the state.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You may reach them here and here.

Featured image: People spend time at Volunteer Park in Seattle, Washington, in late March 2020. Few are wearing masks. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)