As federal guidance on wearing face masks relaxes for those fully vaccinated against COVID-19, there has been some confusion as to what changes and what doesn’t.
People who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks in any outdoor setting, and in the vast majority of indoor settings, unless required by a local mandate or business rule, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But no one is suggesting trashing the masks.
King County’s health officer announced a directive Thursday that “strongly encouraged” people to continue wearing masks in all indoor public areas, vaccinated or not, until 70% of the population is vaccinated. The county also created incentives to help encourage vaccines among its residents.
Skagit County is unlikely to go that far.
All three Skagit County commissioners said they intend to rely on the CDC guidance, which says vaccinated people are largely safe without a mask, though masks should be worn by all in settings such as public transit, hospitals, jails, prisons, planes and homeless shelters. The guidance also states that unvaccinated people must still abide by masking and social distancing guidelines to protect both themselves and other vulnerable individuals.
The Governor’s Office also embraced the guidance, and Gov. Jay Inslee has pointed to June 30 as a target date for a full reopening of state activities and business. Indoor capacities are currently at 50%.
County Health Officer Howard Leibrand said the broader CDC guidance is based on how effective the vaccines are proving to be.
“I agree with the CDC that the science is adequate in demonstrating the protection of vaccination,” Leibrand said.
Population studies of vaccinated people show that “they are so well protected, and if they do get (COVID) it’s not as serious or transmissible,” he said. “That protection is probably adequate for most people.”
While the county commissioners said they aren’t yet ready to encourage tossing masks and returning to life as it was before the pandemic, none felt compelled to offer stronger local restrictions.
Commissioner Lisa Janicki said the guidance relies on trust and whether one can believe someone else when they say they’ve been vaccinated. People who are uncomfortable with the honor system can certainly still choose to wear a mask, but she said she doesn’t think it makes sense as an elected official to set more stringent rules than are being proposed by the state and federal government.
Still, she recognized that the guidance was “feeling really complicated and confusing for workplaces, businesses and everywhere else.”
She said masking is a decision that should be made based on the vulnerability of the people around you. For instance, both Janicki and Commissioner Peter Browning said they continue to wear masks around the elderly, regardless.
“What concerns me is the number of breakthrough cases in the older population,” Janicki said, referring to a COVID-19 case that occurs even after someone is vaccinated. “I think responsibility to mask around even vaccinated older adults is still incumbent on all of us.”
Browning, a previous director of the county Health Department, said he was especially concerned that virus variants could develop that the current vaccines can’t stop. In that instance, masks might be the only protection available.
“Viruses want to live just as badly as we do,” he said. “They will mutate to do that.”
However, he said policy can react to a changing situation, as it has throughout the pandemic. At this point, no stronger guidance is necessary, he said.
“As long as everyone has good and equal access to vaccines and masks and makes their own decisions, that’s something I don’t want to get involved in,” Browning said.
Commissioner Ron Wesen said masking should be a personal choice to enhance safety and that businesses and individuals can make their own decisions. Those who want to get vaccinated can do so at many places in Skagit County, which have plenty of supply on hand.
All three commissioners said business owners should be allowed to continue requiring masks for customers if they so choose, and Leibrand agreed.
Workplace policies are another matter, Leibrand said. There’s a significant difference between something like a large, well-ventilated supermarket and a cramped corner store, as the virus spreads more easily in dense or poorly ventilated areas.
Additional guidance on masking in the workplace is expected from the state Department of Labor and Industries this week, which is intended for employers to use when making policy for staff, according to state Secretary of Health Umair Shah.
Wesen said confusing guidance on masking over the past year has left the public uncertain of what to trust and demonstrates how little was known about COVID-19.
“I think there’s a lot of people who’ve said they know a lot about the virus, but it hasn’t always panned out,” Wesen said.
Wesen said he didn’t personally feel he knew enough about the variable protection levels of masking and the vaccine to contradict what is being offered now by the CDC.
“There are too many unanswered questions for me to make a recommendation,” he said.
Leibrand said the changing guidance shouldn’t be taken as meaning masks don’t work.
“We now have a better method of protection, and it’s called vaccination,” he said.
— Reporter Brandon Stone: firstname.lastname@example.org, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH