Local clinics may still require face coverings
Almost three years after the state first required masks to prevent the spread of COVID, the last mask mandates are being lifted. But it’s too soon to say if you’ll be able to go to your local doctor or dentist with your face bare.
As of April 3, Washington will no longer require masks in medical, long-term care and correctional facilities, but local and regional health care providers haven’t decided whether they’ll change their policies.
The mask requirement is no longer necessary now that rates of COVID, flu and other respiratory diseases — and hospitalizations for these diseases — are declining, the state Department of Health (DOH) said last week.
“Masks have been — and will continue to be — an important tool, along with vaccinations, to keep people healthy and safe,” Washington Secretary of Health Umair Shah said. “We are thankful for our health and long-term care providers, staff members, patients and all Washingtonians for following the important public health measures put in place during the pandemic to protect one another.”
Confluence Health, which operates the Methow Valley Clinic in Winthrop, as well as Wenatchee Valley and Central Washington hospitals, is reviewing the DOH policy and has yet to make a decision, Confluence Corporate Communications Program Manager Adam MacDonald said. Confluence is also looking at other state and federal policies that protect workers, many of which address COVID and masking, he said.
Staff at Family Health Centers, which operates medical and dental clinics throughout Okanogan County, are meeting later this month to discuss next steps, said Sheena Kitterman, their employee health/infection control manager.
North Valley Hospital in Tonasket is also still reviewing the end of the mandate and hasn’t announced changes to its masking policies. “I think it will take a few weeks for us to determine how to strike the best balance for employee and patient safety with relaxed masking rules,” CEO John McReynolds said.
While North Valley anticipates the end of a universal mask requirement, it’s likely masks will still be used in high-risk areas and for high-risk populations, he said.
At Sawtooth Dental Care in Twisp, masks will be recommended for patients, rather than required. All practitioners will still wear masks, as they did before COVID. They will continue to use a protective mouth rinse for patients before all procedures.
Steep drop in cases
The relaxed restrictions come as rates of COVID — and, in particular, severe cases — have decreased substantially. Since the peak of the Omicron variant surge at the end of January 2022, reported daily COVID cases are down 92%, COVID deaths have declined by more than 80%, and new COVID hospitalizations are down by almost 80%, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).
Today, most people use home tests, so results are not always reported to health agencies.
Masks are still recommended in health care settings for providers, patients and visitors, but they will no longer be required, DOH said. Individual facilities can set their own rules and employees may continue to use face coverings on the job without employer retaliation.
The state’s COVID emergency proclamations expired at the end of October 31, 2022, but COVID remains a recognized workplace hazard and some rules are still in effect, primarily regarding notifications of a disease outbreak.
The federal public health emergency ends May 11. Even after the emergency ends, there will be opportunities for expedited authorization of new tests, vaccines and treatments for COVID, HHS said. But the Congressional appropriation for free COVID vaccines and treatments has ended, meaning that coverage for these services will be through traditional health insurance, so some people will have copays. Medicaid will pay for COVID vaccines through September 2024.
Opportunities for expanded telehealth medicine will continue through the end of next year, HHS said.