Two riders sit near windows on the Sound Transit light rail, wearing masks, on the day the mask mandate was lifted

Cases Continue to Rise, but Mask Picture Gets Muddy for People Measuring Risk

by Sally James

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Should I wear a mask?

Should I get a second COVID-19 booster vaccine?

Suddenly, questions and answers about staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic seem as mercurial as Seattle’s spring weather, where it may rain, hail, or shine depending on the hour and where you are.

After a Florida judge on Monday threw out a national mask mandate on transit and planes, people around Seattle were thrown into a slowly moving chaos about COVID-19 precautions.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of Florida ruled Monday, April 18, that the federal government may not have the “authority” to mandate masks on airplanes and public transit, and major airlines quickly rescinded their mandatory mask requirements.

Tuesday, leading Puget Sound transit agencies followed suit, dropping their mask mandates, but said riders are still welcome to wear face coverings if they wish. Participating in the announcement were: Community Transit, Everett Transit, King County Metro, Kitsap Transit, Pierce Transit, Seattle Department of Transportation (Seattle Streetcar), Seattle Center Monorail, and Sound Transit.

“We thank our riders for your high mask usage throughout the mask mandate,” King County Metro posted on its website. “Between 85% and 90% of Metro customers masked up, protecting your fellow riders and our employees. We’re also proud to have distributed nearly 8 million masks. Metro will continue to provide free masks through dispensers onboard all our modes of transit at least through July 1.”

King County Metro added that some health measures started during the pandemic would become permanent, such as daily disinfecting, fleetwide air filter upgrades, and encouraging contactless payment.

Riders on the light rail, some wearing masks and others not, on the day the mask mandate was lifted
Riding the Sound Transit light rail north from Beacon Hill on Tuesday, when the transit mask mandate ended. (Photo: Alex Garland)

But Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, was critical of the airline’s quick decision to make masks optional on planes. 

“I don’t think the timing of dropping the federal transportation mask mandate is very good,” Duchin said Tuesday. “Cases are rising in many communities, new variants are on the horizon, children under age 5 are not yet able to be vaccinated, and many people remain susceptible to severe COVID-19 because of age or underlying medical conditions. Activities associated with travel in enclosed conveyances presents increased risk.”

Duchin says high-quality masks protect against getting infected and spreading infection. He recommended wearing high-quality (N95, KN95, KF94), well-fitting face masks in crowded indoor public spaces, including on metro buses and other public transit, such as ride shares.

“A high-quality mask can reduce your risk of infection, particularly in a setting with poor ventilation, and help prevent spread of COVID-19 to others who are not able to be vaccinated or at high risk for severe infections,” Duchin said.

“This is especially important for people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated and people who are not up to date with their vaccinations, including booster doses,” he said. “Cases continue to rise in King County. While we can’t predict whether or how much cases will continue to rise or when they may fall, we know preventing cases through layered prevention strategies, including wearing high-quality masks, can help individuals stay safe and healthy and decrease the risk for long COVID.”

Meanwhile, passengers on airplanes on Monday night heard about new rules. Some reported that stewards and other flight personnel announced the end to the federal mandate over the plane’s public address system. Alaska, Delta, and United Airlines all publicly said they would not require masks by Tuesday, according to a Seattle Times story.

Seattle resident Tony Barker told the Emerald that he was on a Delta flight from Minneapolis Monday night when he heard a raucous commotion break out as he walked down the jetway to board the plane for Seattle.

“All of a sudden, I heard people clapping and cheering,” Barker said. “It sounded like church broke out or something, or someone dropped a proposal.”

The captain had announced that the mask mandate on airplanes had been lifted, he was told. Some passengers still wore their masks, and many doffed theirs, but it was a fairly relaxed flight without any rancor over using masks, he says.

“Just use common sense,” Barker said. “Some folks will wear a mask, give them grace; those that do not, show them that respect. Go get your shot and you don’t have to worry about all that, and that’s the bottom line.”

Amid a local increase in COVID-19 cases, there are still signs that many people are less worried about the pandemic. Restaurants are full of unmasked diners. Fans of the Mariners baseball team celebrated Opening Day over the recent holiday weekend, many without masks. While cases are rising, the number of people hospitalized is declining. 

Local lines at testing places and lines for vaccines and boosters are shorter. Masking is no longer mandated in many places, but is recommended indoors for people with vulnerability, including everyone over 65 years old and people with weaker immune systems due to cancer or other illnesses.

Seattle Public Schools returned to operation after spring break Monday, and families were asked to use rapid at-home tests to prevent students (and teachers) from returning from break and bringing COVID-19 into the classrooms. 

Public health authorities continue to urge people to keep getting vaccines, and especially boosters if they are in an eligible group. Second boosters are offered for everyone over 50, for example.

Some in the over-65 age groups are debating exactly when to get a second booster. Some who are at moderate risk of severe disease may hurry, and some may delay, hoping to time their strongest immunity to match upcoming travel or other events.

A long thread about boosters from Dr. Duchin was posted on social media. If one has a medical provider, it can be helpful to call them to discuss one’s own personal risk and strategy. 

Meanwhile, many people in King County still have not received a first booster, which was recommended for everyone over 12 years about four months after their last vaccine shot.

While a majority of all King County residents have received their vaccine and booster, it looks very different for some BIPOC communities, according to the County’s data. Among Black residents of the county, only about 33% of people have received a booster vaccine. 

A person’s immune strength wanes after vaccination, so people are less well-protected if they have not received a booster. Among Hispanic residents, an estimated 31% have received boosters. Among white county residents, the boosted rate is only about 50%.

Where to Find Boosters and Vaccines

There are many places offering both COVID-19 vaccines and the two boosters that have been recommended for some ages. The best way to find them may be to use the Vaccine Locator website and enter your ZIP code. 

Harborview, Costco, and the Rainier Walgreens are among big South Seattle organizations that are offering the vaccine and boosters. If you enter the ZIP code 98108 in the Locator, just as an example, you will also get Sy Pharmacy and Wellness, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Sea Mar Community Health Center, ICHS Holly Park, King Plaza Pharmacy, and dozens of other locations. Note that some ask you to register for an appointment and others take walk-ins. They may not all offer the same brand of vaccine, with some offering Moderna and others Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson.

How to Get Treatments

In another update, health authorities are urging people to contact their health providers to understand what treatments they may receive if they do get a COVID-19 diagnosis. Some of these, such as the antiviral Paxlovid, must be given quickly after symptoms develop. 

In a blog from Public Health — Seattle & King County, it outlines the key questions to prepare your household to potentially get treatments. Besides the antiviral, there are also monoclonal antibody therapies.

There is a federal program called Test to Treat that aims to make things faster and easier for free treatments for people at high risk of COVID-19. Details on getting that fast treatment are in the blog, including where in South Seattle the Test to Treat service is possible. Here is the Test to Treat Locator, where you can enter your ZIP code to find resources. 

In a separate development this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a breath-based device to test for COVID-19, explained here.

Kent, Auburn, and Renton

For those in the Kent area, the community vaccination clinic at Sea Mar Kent is still open for drop-ins and same-day appointments. King County’s vaccination site at the Auburn Outlet Collection mall will also remain open to help address gaps in access. And HealthPoint Renton provides vaccinations to anyone eligible, including those who are not currently established patients, by appointment.


Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at www.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: Bailey Hancock (left) and Julie Holstad ride the Sound Transit light rail south from SoDo Station on Tuesday, just hours after Puget Sound transit agencies lifted COVID-19 mandatory mask requirements. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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