by Ben Adlin and Sally James
Washington’s universal indoor mask mandate will remain in place for now, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon, but he added that he plans to announce next week a target date to lift the statewide restriction. Inslee did announce that the state’s current outdoor mask mandate, which applies to events with more than 500 people, would be lifted by Feb. 18.
If data — specifically admissions at hospitals across the state — suggest the indoor mandate can be safely removed without leading to a spike in cases, Inslee said, he expects that masks will be optional in a matter of “weeks rather than months.”
“We’d like to give people as much of a sense of normalcy as is scientifically allowable,” the governor said. ”If we keep making decisions based on science, we’re going to keep people healthy.”
Jurisdictions across the country are increasingly considering lifting requirements that people wear masks indoors at businesses, schools, and other venues. Earlier on Wednesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) lifted the state’s masking requirements for businesses but left it in place for schools. California will remove statewide masking requirements on Feb. 16, and many but not all local jurisdictions have followed suit. Rhode Island, meanwhile, will undo its mask requirement this Friday at businesses and on March 4 at schools.
Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal is among those at the state level calling for the mask mandate to end soon. In a statement Wednesday reported by the Seattle Times, Reykdal said that masking has helped keep students, families, and school employees safe but also negatively impacted student learning.
“This is the nature of an ever-changing virus as it moves from highly impactful and unmitigated, to much less impactful and more treatable,” the State superintendent said, pointing to the state’s relatively high vaccination rates and projected declines in both cases and hospitalizations. “This change will empower schools to better focus their valuable time on supporting our students’ learning and well-being recovery and acceleration.”
Inslee said that Washington will most likely lift masking requirements at schools and businesses on the same date, though he acknowledged that masking imposed by private entities or other jurisdictions could remain after that.
Federal law, for example, requires that people wear masks on public transit systems, a rule Inslee cannot change. Local governments such as counties also have authority to impose masking rules within their jurisdictions. And businesses or other entities can still set their own rules for customers and employees.
Hospitals Express Caution
Representatives of state hospitals said earlier this week that while the number of patients in hospitals with COVID-19 is falling in Washington, and it appears the worst of the omicron variant is passing, people should still exercise caution.
“Don’t rip off your masks and go to big parties,” warned Washington Hospital Association President Cassie Sauer at an online briefing Tuesday, noting that “better does not mean over.”
Federal officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have also said it’s too soon to lift indoor masking requirements.
“Now is not the moment,” agency chief Rochelle Walensky told Reuters in an interview published Tuesday, a day after multiple states began announcing ends to their masking rules.
Inslee emphasized Wednesday that Washington is “beginning” its transition away from mask requirements, saying he agreed with those who said that declaring a date now would be too soon. But pointing to case numbers and hospitalization data from other states and countries, he said state health officials expected “extremely low numbers by the first week in March.”
“Those are projections,” he noted. “Those are not absolute certainties, as we know.”
“It is no longer a question of if, it is a question of when,” Inslee said. He added that another week of data will “give us a higher level of confidence of where we’re going to be sometime in March.”
Inslee also announced that he will remove on Feb. 17 a statewide requirement that postpones all non-emergent surgeries. The governor praised health care and hospital workers, saying that even as pandemic numbers wane, “we need to stand with them in the coming weeks.”
“We know how hard our hospital workers have been working,” he said, “and we appreciate their incredible diligence during this period of time. They’re gonna have continued work as they catch up for other measures.”
The omicron variant is “considerably less lethal” than previous COVID-19 viruses but “still has the capacity to jam your hospital so nobody can get treatment for a heart attack,” Inslee continued. “That’s our major concern here.”
Lacy Fehrenbach, the governor’s deputy secretary for the state’s COVID response, said at Wednesday’s press conference that Washington will continue to monitor case numbers and hospitalization rates.
“We are fortunate in Washington state to have a high percent of people vaccinated — 80% of those eligible have received their vaccines — and also we’re looking at what is on the horizon,” Fehrenbach said.
Hospitals, however, are still having trouble finding places for patients to go after they are done needing care. If a patient can’t find a nursing home or rehabilitation center or can’t go home, the hospital can’t put a new patient in that space. At the hospital press conference earlier this week, Kunal Joshi, a doctor who works at both Swedish and Overlake medical centers discussed admitting patients for broken hips during the snowstorm in January, then not being able to discharge them because many had also tested positive for COVID-19. Nursing homes didn’t have adequate room to isolate the patients, and some families were unable to safely bring their relatives home.
Vaccines for Young Children
As health care workers continue to battle the state’s largest-ever wave of hospitalizations related to the virus, more hope is on the vaccine horizon. Shaquita Bell, senior medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle, said she’s eager to begin offering vaccines to young children once approved by the federal government. Regulators are scheduled to discuss approval on Feb. 15 of a Pfizer vaccine for kids from 6 months to 5 years old.
“We are getting excited to vaccinate babies,” said Bell, who sees about 2,000 children as their pediatrician. If the new vaccine is approved for use by the Centers for Disease Control, she predicted it might be available as soon as early March.
Whether parents will flock to get young children vaccinated is another open question. In Washington so far, only 37% of children ages 5 through 12 have been vaccinated.
Bell said she believes families want to make decisions after hearing information from people they trust. With a majority of the staff at Odessa Brown being BIPOC, she said, workers are prepared to combat misinformation as a full-time job.
“They want to come to a clinic,” she explained, “and not a CVS pharmacy.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
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 by Susan Fried.
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