In just three and a half weeks, people will no longer need to wear masks in stores, gyms or schools in Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans to lift the statewide indoor mask mandate on March 21, based on projections for a significant reduction in COVID cases and, most important, lower hospital admissions.
“This will allow us, in the upcoming weeks, to take further steps forward in regaining a more normal life in the state of Washington, while still protecting our public health, and our families’ health,” Inslee said in the Feb. 17 news conference. The date is based on science and data, which have guided the state’s response throughout the pandemic, saving tens of thousands of lives, Inslee said.
“The ultimate goal is to prevent our hospitals from breaking,” Inslee said.
COVID infections and hospitalizations are still the highest they’ve been in the two years of the pandemic, but epidemiological modeling projects that cases will drop significantly in the coming weeks, Inslee said.
The goal is for the hospitalization rate to fall to five per 100,000, which is projected in the third week of March. The current rate is about 22 per 100,000, Inslee said.
Masks will still be required in certain situations, including health care settings, long-term care facilities, and correctional institutions, to protect the most vulnerable people. Federal requirements for masking on public transportation are still in effect, Inslee said.
Businesses will be free to continue to require masks, and individuals can wear them if they choose. In addition, local health jurisdictions can impose restrictions based on local case rates to protect residents.
State Secretary of Health Umair Shah urged everyone to “respect the rules of the room,” including people’s choices to continue to use a mask. In fact, public health officials recommend that people continue to use masks to provide maximum protection for themselves and others, he said.
Inslee also lifted the requirement for verification of vaccination at large events as of March 1.
‘Journey toward normalcy’
Inslee called the changes “a very important step” in the “journey toward normalcy.” As the state transitions to living with COVID, people need to find safe ways to go about their activities, Shah said.
Inslee acknowledged that some people will think it’s too soon to lift the mask mandate, and some will think the state waited too long. He noted that the Omicron variant pushed case and hospitalization rates to pandemic records, and that a thousand people in Washington died from COVID in January.
COVID has increased demands throughout the hospital system. Caring for patients with COVID requires additional protective equipment and infection- control procedures, Shah said. At present, hospitals are still struggling with high patient loads, meaning that people who seek care in the emergency department have been waiting on gurneys in the hallways, Inslee said.
Public health officials opted for a statewide change to the mandate, with the ability for local health jurisdictions to set their own regulations, because a county-by-county approach has proven too confusing, Inslee said. People should continue to be informed about disease rates in their area and take appropriate precautions, Shah said.
Inslee and Shah emphasized the key role of vaccines in keeping the population safe. While 72% of Washington residents are fully vaccinated, many counties in eastern Washington have much lower vaccination rates. The rate in Okanogan County has been static at 48% since early January. Washington would be in a “markedly different place” if the vaccination rate were consistently high across the state, Shah said.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal joined Inslee at the press conference and hailed the progress in combating the disease, from when the state completely closed all schools, to a return to in-person education, to relaxing requirements for masks and social distancing. Federal regulations require that masks still be worn on school buses, he said.
Inslee expects to announce new guidelines for school athletics and COVID testing soon.
Okanogan County Statistics
While new COVID cases have been declining overall in Washington, the trajectory in Okanogan County is less clear. The most recent data from Okanogan County Public Health show 358 new cases from Feb. 9 to 15, compared with 286 in the previous seven days. But 286 was a significant drop from the last week of January, when the county recorded 587 cases.
Free COVID test kits at the library
People can pick up a free COVID test kit when they go to check out a book or DVD at their local library. Okanogan County Public Health is partnering with NCW Libraries to distribute these home test kits.
Kits are available on a first-come, first-served basis, while supplies last, with a limit of one kit per person. Participating libraries are in Twisp, Winthrop, Pateros, Brewster, Omak, Okanogan and Oroville.