Masks are required for all people in Washington, regardless of vaccination status, in all indoor spaces as of Monday (Aug. 23).
State Secretary of Health Umair Shah reimposed the mask requirement as COVID cases and hospitalizations in Washington reached the highest level in the 18 months of the pandemic.
The order applies to everyone over the age of 5. People with certain health conditions are exempt. Masks are also recommended in crowded outdoor settings such as concerts or sporting events, Shah said.
“While vaccines are the pathway out of this pandemic, wearing a mask is necessary to stem the current increase in COVID-19 cases,” he said.
“I know this will frustrate some vaccinated folks who thought they wouldn’t have to do this anymore,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “There are not enough people vaccinated. The result is the explosive growth of a much more infectious strain, the Delta variant, and it increasingly impacts people of all ages.”
The mask mandate was supported by all 34 health officers in the state, including Okanogan County Health Officer James Wallace. The officers sent a letter to Inslee recommending the use of facial coverings statewide to avoid a “hodge-podge” of regulations.
As health officer, Wallace had the authority to sign the letter, but he wanted to discuss it first with the Okanogan County Board of Health, according to Jessica Kuzma, who handles communications for Okanogan County Public Health. At a special meeting on Aug. 17, the board opposed signing the letter by a vote of 2 to 4. All three county commissioners are board members. Only Commissioner Chris Branch voted in favor; commissioners Andy Hover and Jim DeTro voted against it, Kuzma said.
Variant drives surge
The state Department of Health (DOH) estimates that one in every 588 people in the state got an active COVID infection in less than a month, from July 4 to Aug. 6. The prevalence of COVID almost quadrupled in that time, DOH said.
With the rise of the more infectious Delta variant, every county in Washington is currently seeing substantial or high transmission. About 98% of current cases are estimated to be caused by the Delta variant, DOH said.
Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee is currently treating 36 people for COVID. Fourteen are critically ill, eight in the ICU, and seven on a ventilator, according to Andrew Canning, public information officer for Confluence Health. Two of those hospitalized are from Okanogan County. Forty-five percent of those at Central Washington are in their 50s or younger, Canning said.
Five of the patients at Central Washington are fully vaccinated, but vaccinated people who need hospitalization tend to be severely immunocompromised, Canning said.
In Okanogan County, as of Aug. 16, there had been no hospitalizations or deaths in unvaccinated people, according to Okanogan County Public Health. Statewide, between Feb. 1 and Aug. 3, 94.5% of people hospitalized for COVID were not fully vaccinated, according to DOH.
Unvaccinated people between 16 and 64 are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than those who are fully vaccinated. For unvaccinated people 65 and older, hospitalizations are six times higher, DOH said.
Staff shortages continue to be the most significant challenge for health care providers, both across the state and in North Central Washington, Canning said. Currently, Confluence Health has 500 openings, 170 for nursing roles and another 150 for a variety of medical assistants, he said.
In the week ending Aug. 22, Okanogan County recorded 117 new COVID cases – six in Twisp, one in Winthrop, and two in Methow. The county also reported two more deaths from COVID. No additional details were available.
The county is reporting 43 “breakthrough” cases in fully vaccinated people since vaccinations began in December. There were no infections in vaccinated individuals until May, according to Kuzma.
Of the approximately 1,100 positive cases in the county since mid-January, when the first vaccinated people would be fully protected, fewer than 4% have been in vaccinated individuals, according to Okanogan County Public Health.
Want a vaccine?
• Go to okanogancountycovid19.org/covid-19-vaccine
• Text your ZIP code to GETVAX (438829)
• Call 833-VAX-HELP
Need a test?
•Local testing sites are listed at okanogancountycovid19.org/symptoms-testing.
• Call the COVID-19 hotline at 1-800-525-0127, then press #