OLYMPIA — Washington will follow federal guidance and recommend that those who are vaccinated wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas where there is “substantial or high” rates of COVID-19, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.
People who are unvaccinated are still required to wear masks in indoor public spaces, the same as before, but Inslee said he doesn’t want to make the the new guidance mandatory because he didn’t want to take away a benefit from those who are vaccinated, and he still had hopes that vaccination rates will increase in the coming weeks.
“People who aren’t vaccinated right now are a danger to their fellow citizens, they create a risk to their fellow citizens and that’s a danger that we can’t ignore,” Inslee said at a news conference.
Inslee also said the state will continue to require that all students and employees of K-12 schools wear masks when instruction resumes for the upcoming school year, and noted that is a legal requirement not up to the local jurisdictions.
As cases continue to rise across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the delta variant of the coronavirus is fueling infection surges.
According to a CDC tracker, 13 counties in Washington state have high levels of community transmission, 13 have substantial levels, 12 are listed as moderate, and just one — Garfield County — has low levels.
Health officials in more than a half-dozen western Washington counties were already recommending mask-wearing in indoor public spaces regardless of vaccine status because of a rise in COVID-19 cases and the highly infectious delta variant.
Public Health Seattle & King County officials said on Monday in a joint statement with the counties that local health officers from around the Puget Sound region were joining together in the recommendation after King County health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, issued the guidance on Friday.
Officials in Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap, Clallam, Jefferson, San Juan and Grays Harbor counties joined King in the recommendation.
Inslee said he is considering following steps taken by California and New York, which are requiring state employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly testing. He also said that making the COVID 19 vaccine mandatory for school kids — same as the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine —was also possible.
Department of Health Secretary Umair Shah said that the increased transmission of the delta variant across the state “should be a wake-up call to all of us.” He noted that 96% of the current hospitalizations are people who are not fully vaccinated.
There have been more than 430,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus another 40,000 “probable” cases — in Washington state, and 6.097 deaths. Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy director for COVID-19 response for the Department of Health, said that 96% of the the new cases are from the delta variant, up from 70% since early July.
As of July 24, nearly 67% of people age 12 and older have initiated vaccination and about 61% are fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates vary county to county, but only four counties have rates of higher than 60% of those eligible for vaccine having gotten at least one dose.
“If we want to end this pandemic, we do have to get vaccinated,” Shah said.