by Sally James
The COVID-19 delta variant is behind the latest surge of coronavirus cases, prompting new mask mandates, and raising a lot of new questions, including about the safety of unvaccinated school children and playing sports.
This week we look at some new questions and rely on County and State health officials for the latest guidance.
Gov. Jay Inslee ordered a new mask requirement that went into effect Monday, Aug. 23, prompted by increased spread of the more transmissible delta variant. Under the State mandate, masks are required in all indoor public spaces. This includes retail and grocery stores as well as bars and restaurants (except while seated and eating or drinking). In addition, masks are now also being recommended in all crowded outdoor settings. This includes summer concerts, farmers markets, or large sporting events.
Masking up is now necessary because even people who are vaccinated can infect others with the delta variant. This will help protect unvaccinated adults and children under 12, who are most vulnerable. While vaccinated people with the virus are unlikely to get very sick and in some cases may not have any symptoms, they can still spread the virus to others.
Last week President Joe Biden announced that those with weakened immune systems can get a third booster shot of vaccine immediately. For everyone else, the booster shots will become available to health care workers, first responders, and the elderly who received their vaccine courses first, followed by all other fully vaccinated people on Sept. 20.
As the health landscape changes week to week, we’ll stay on top of the latest recommendations and answer your questions along the way. Feel free to send us your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s what readers are asking this week:
How can my children be safe going to school again with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus at a high level now and hospitals filling up with patients?
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has a lengthy explanation on its website about the safety measures they are putting in place. But it boils down to this: All students and staff will be required to wear masks.
The district also says it has improved ventilation in buildings and each building is changing the way lunch is served to help students remain at least 3 feet away from each other.
Across the U.S., different states are handling this transition back to in-person school differently. Some have criticized SPS for not offering all families an online option. Some families can choose an online option. One Seattle scientist, who is also a public school parent of two, wrote an opinion article in The Seattle Times asking for more effort from the district.
My son is supposed to start football practice at our high school soon. Is that safe?
School sports guidelines were updated last week. The details are complicated. Student athletes are not required to wear masks while they are competing, including during football games, but they are required to wear masks on the sidelines. Indoor sports, including wrestling and basketball, do not require masks while competing, but do require them at all other times.
All the details are here. (The sports guidelines begin on page 14 of the document.)
Under some conditions, an unvaccinated student athlete might need to be screened or tested for COVID-19 before participating.
I drove by a testing site in South Seattle and it had a line of cars waiting to get in? Can I get a test if I need one? How crowded are the sites?
Testing is more important during this outbreak than ever. Anybody who has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or who has symptoms like a cough and a fever needs to be tested. Even if you have been vaccinated, you still need to be tested. There are many places to get tested, including your own health care provider’s office. Here is a guide to testing in King County. Here is a guide statewide. There are also tests you can buy at the drugstore that you can take home and use.
We spoke to HealthPoint, which helps run a testing site in Renton, and they said they were doing about 800 tests every day. While you may wait awhile to get tested, they are able to handle all the people who need tests. These tests are free, but registering for an appointment is usually better than just driving up. There are free tests in some pharmacies, but most sell self-tests for you to take home.
There are three types of COVID-19 tests. Here is a link for explanation of PCR, antigen, and antibody tests from the Washington State Department of Health and when you need each one. When in doubt, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
I went to a wedding. I’m vaccinated. One of the other guests at the wedding had symptoms and tested positive COVID-19 a few days later. I did not sit near her, and I don’t have symptoms. Do I need to get tested?
Yes. If you were exposed indoors to someone who had COVID-19, you should be tested. In addition, you should quarantine away from others until you get your results. Even if you don’t have symptoms, you could be carrying the virus in your nose, mouth, or throat and could expose other people.
I have been hearing about booster shots, a third dose of vaccine, for immune-compromised people. Who are those people?
A vaccine stimulates your body to produce immunity against COVID-19. But people with certain conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis or people who recently had an organ transplant, don’t share the same level of immunity as someone without a medical condition. They can get vaccinated but still remain at higher risk. For those people the third “booster” shot of a vaccine can raise their immunity, giving them more protection. Patients who are receiving certain cancer treatments are also immune compromised. The booster shots are available at many pharmacies and at most vaccine sites.
For more information, the Centers for Disease Control has a page on its website.
Do I need to wear a mask to go to a restaurant? What about sitting outdoors?
Diners must follow the State mask mandate and wear masks indoors, except for when eating or drinking. But some restaurants are going a step further. Beacon Hill’s Restaurant Homer, for example, is asking people to wear masks and show proof of vaccination before they can be seated indoors. A pizza restaurant in Columbia City is not asking for proof of vaccination but is adhering to the mask mandate. That’s Amore, in Mount Baker, posted on Twitter that they are asking for proof of vaccination for indoor dining.
Why is there a new COVID-19 headline every day? It feels confusing right now, with people arguing about what is safe and what is not safe.
The current delta variant surge has hit some parts of the United States very hard. In Oregon, for example, the governor activated the state National Guard to help overburdened hospitals. Some of the predictions scientists made in the past applied to earlier variants of the COVID-19 virus, which were not as easily transmitted as the delta strain. There are new headlines every day because new discoveries are being made about how this variant behaves and because the risk factors also change. One of the biggest factors is how people behave. Whether they travel or join large crowds at public events can have an impact on the surge in cases. For instance, over 200 cases of COVID-19 were linked to a music festival in Washington at the outdoor Gorge Amphitheatre.
If you have other COVID-19 questions, we’d love to hear from you and will continue to update the local health guidance as it changes. Send your questions to email@example.com.
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at SeattleScienceWriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.
📸 Featured image is attributed to Chad Davis (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).
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