People in Washington can shed their masks nine days earlier than expected, since COVID case rates and hospitalizations have continued to decline sharply.
The requirement to wear masks in businesses, gyms and schools will expire on at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, March 11.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced the change, which lifts the mask mandate for most indoor public spaces and shifts to mask recommendations for schools, in a coordinated statement with the governors of Oregon and Washington on Monday (Feb. 28).
The state is turning a page in the fight against COVID, Inslee said at a press conference on Monday. “This page will be based more on empowering individuals and families in protecting themselves, rather than based on government restrictions,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Inslee had announced that infection modeling made public health officials confident that new hospital admissions would be low enough by March 21 to lift the mask requirement. But as numbers have continued to fall rapidly — a pattern seen with the Omicron variant across the world — state health officials determined that it’s safe to move the date up, Inslee said.
Although masks won’t be required in most businesses and public spaces, they’ll still be mandatory in health care settings, long-term care facilities, and correctional institutions, to protect the most vulnerable people. The federal government still requires masks on public transportation, airplanes and school buses.
The state Department of Health (DOH) will issue new guidance and updated safety protocols for K-12 schools next week, along with details about how the state will ensure an adequate supply of vaccines and of protective equipment for health care workers.
The state will protect the right of individuals and students to continue to wear a mask, and of businesses to adopt their own mask policies. Local health jurisdictions can also set their own policies, Inslee said.
“While this represents another step forward for Washingtonians, we must still be mindful that many within our communities remain vulnerable. Many businesses and families will continue choosing to wear masks, because we’ve learned how effective they are at keeping one another safe,” Inslee said.
The state of emergency will remain in effect to safeguard hospitals and other vulnerable settings, to protect the rights of individuals and employees to wear a mask, and to preserve access to federal COVID funds, Inslee said.
New CDC guidelines
While Washington has determined it’s most effective to move ahead as a state, rather than on a county-by-county basis, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its mask guidance last week, advising the use of masks only when there’s a high risk of COVID infection in a community. The CDC urges people to consult a color-coded map to see whether their county is at low, medium or high risk.
The new CDC guidelines state that masks are not necessary for people in low-risk areas. People in medium-risk areas should wear a mask if they are immunocompromised or live with someone who is immunocompromised. All people in high-risk areas, regardless of vaccination status, should continue to wear a mask in indoor public settings, including schools. The guidelines are intended to flex as local conditions change.
People can look up the “COVID-19 by County” risk on a color-coded map and list on the CDC website. As of Feb. 24, the level in Okanogan County was still high, meaning that the CDC recommends that everyone continue to wear a mask. Chelan and Douglas counties are also still at high risk.
Washington DOH officials said the risk is expected to be low across the state by March 12, when the mask mandate ends.
Wherever they are, people should wear a mask if they have symptoms, get a positive test, or are exposed to someone with COVID, the CDC said.
The hospital still provides PCR tests, which are sent out to a lab and take two to three days for results. PCR tests are more accurate and therefore more appropriate for a diagnosis, according to the hospital.
People can get an antigen test for travel or an event without an appointment by going to the hospital’s main entrance in Brewster between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
People with COVID symptoms or exposure to the virus should call Three Rivers Family Medicine at (509) 689-3749 to schedule a test.
Okanogan County stats
Okanogan County Public Health reported 91 COVID cases in the week from Feb. 16 through 22, less than one-third of the cases in the previous week. Public Health also revised the data reported for Feb. 9 through 15, removing duplicate counts for people who’d received positive test results on two types of tests, and eliminating people who don’t live in Okanogan County. Those adjustments cut 57 cases, bringing the total for Feb. 9 through 15 to 301, instead of 358.
The county’s vaccination rate moved up by one percentage point, with 49% of the population now fully vaccinated.
Three Rivers offers COVID tests for events, travel
Three Rivers Hospital is now offering COVID antigen tests, with results in four hours, for people attending public events, traveling or returning to work or school.