For now, strict masking requirements will not be coming back to Washington state, despite the spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants among unvaccinated people, state health officials said Tuesday.
The World Health Organization recently urged even fully vaccinated people to wear a mask as the delta variant, first detected in India, has spread considerably in the United States and other countries. But that doesn’t jibe with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Washington state.
“We are not changing our mask requirements out of concern about that variant at this time,” state Department of Health spokesperson Ashley Gross said.
But Dr. Umair Shah, the state’s secretary of health, did amend his masking order Tuesday. The updated order directs those not fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks in public indoor settings and that even the fully vaccinated must wear masks in schools, health care settings and on public transportation.
“Wearing masks outdoors is no longer required, but people who are not fully vaccinated are encouraged to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings, such as sporting events, fairs, parades and concerts,” Gross said. “Masks are no longer required for outdoor sports practice or competitions.”
Public health officials in Los Angeles County recently changed masking guidance because of the delta variant, suggesting everyone, vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors. Such a change in guidance could happen in King County if needed, where Public Health – Seattle & King County is monitoring the variants circulating in the county.
“Going forward, as we switch from government-ordered, population-level mandates, each of us will need to understand and be comfortable with the level of risk we’re willing to take as individuals and for our families,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer, Public Health – Seattle & King County.
The delta variant has elbowed its way to dominance across most of the nation. But in Washington, the gamma variant, first detected in Brazil, remains the main threat.
The gamma variant is outpacing delta and alpha, which currently is responsible for the largest share of coronavirus infections, but public health officials don’t have plans to issue stricter mask guidance despite gamma and delta being more transmissible than alpha, the variant first detected in the United Kingdom.
Delta only represents a small number of variants found through genotyping, Gross said.
According to DOH’s latest sequencing and variants report, instances of the delta variant increased from 4.7% in the previous report to 9% of variants identified. Gamma makes up 24% of variants, an increase from 13.9% in the previous report.
Public Health – Seattle & King County’s most recent sequencing data through a two-week period ending June 7 showed alpha is the variant most widely circulating, accounting for 51% of all variants of concern, followed by gamma at 23%. Delta registered at 22%.