It’s been about a month since Washington state lifted most indoor mask mandates. But a recent slight rise in infections raises a pressing question: At what point could those restrictions return?
Some sites, like the city of Philadelphia and several college campuses, are announcing a return to indoor mask mandates as COVID-19 cases creep back up.
But our state isn’t quite there yet, according to Washington health officials and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.
Infections have stayed relatively low in Washington since an omicron-fueled surge swept through this past winter, though data showing a small increase has emerged over the last few weeks, according to the state Department of Health’s COVID data dashboard. At the end of March, DOH reported a seven-day average of 535 daily cases, compared to 440 daily cases 10 days prior.
Still, the daily average is far from mid-January levels, when the state recorded an average of about 19,700 infections and 300 hospitalizations per day.
In King County, cases have tripled in the last month, with an average of about 484 new daily cases as of this week — also much lower than the county’s peak of 6,500 daily infections a few months ago.
Could an indoor masking requirement make a comeback?
Unlike other parts of the country, there’s no specific threshold for reinstating masking requirements in Washington, said Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesperson, on Tuesday.
“The governor has always said that the stress COVID puts on our health system is the biggest concern,” Faulk wrote in an email. “If hospitals are once again becoming stressed to capacity, the governor will no doubt consider the interventions we know work to reduce the number of people getting seriously ill.”
The arrival of any potential new variants, particularly ones that might be more infectious, more severe or have a “significant immune escape,” would also play a part in reintroducing mitigation measures, according to a DOH statement.
“If we were to get a new variant … and we see our case rates or hospitalization rates go up, we will make recommendations appropriate for that variant and what’s needed, whether that’s vaccination, whether it’s masking, whether it’s ventilation,” the statement said.
As of this week, about 199 people were hospitalized with COVID, reflecting a slight bump over the weekend, according to the Washington State Hospital Association. COVID hospitalizations, however, are still much lower than they were at the beginning of March, when hospitals recorded more than 700 COVID patients.
Hospital beds remain more than 90% full, mostly with patients who need delayed care, have the flu or can’t yet be discharged due to staffing shortages at long-term care facilities, WSHA said.
COVID patients, meanwhile, are using about 4% of the state’s hospital beds.
Around the United States, most major cities are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — updated in late February — that focuses more on hospital capacity and less on new daily infections when tracking community risk. The guidance classifies counties as being at low, medium or high risk.
Residents who live in high-risk counties are encouraged to wear a face covering in public, indoor places, regardless of vaccination status, the CDC said.
Some places, however, have their own existing criteria for gauging risk, including Philadelphia, which this week became one of the first major U.S. cities to announce a return to indoor mask mandates after dropping them about a month ago.
The change comes after the city recorded more than a 50% jump in cases over the last 10 days, Philadelphia public health officials said Monday. By CDC guidelines, Philadelphia County is considered to be under low community risk.
King County, also at low risk as of this week, does not currently meet the CDC’s, or Philadelphia’s, criteria for reintroducing mask mandates.
“We will continue to monitor necessary data, consult with local health leaders and use available tools to detect any changes in conditions that may signal a need for a different level of response to COVID-19,” DOH said. “We won’t be surprised, we’ll see it coming, since we’ll pick it up through genotyping and through our disease-detection efforts.”