COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to trend down throughout Washington state, giving hospitals some more breathing room as the omicron surge subsides.

But hospital leaders have concerns about the approaching end to statewide masking requirements and are encouraging people to mask indoors even after mandates lift.

Gov. Jay Inslee and public health officials on Monday sped up the timeline for the end of indoor masking requirements — to March 12.

“Until we have a few more months of really low cases and things are more certain, we ask that this practice be continued in a pragmatic way,” said Taya Briley, vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association, during a Tuesday news conference. “It’s an easy and compassionate thing to do.”

Although hospitalizations are also decreasing throughout the UW Medicine system, Dr. Santiago Neme, clinical associate professor of medicine and infectious diseases at UW Medicine, said Tuesday that universal masking will still be required in the health care system’s hospital settings for patients, staffers and visitors. 

He also encouraged people to continue masking indoors even after the mandate lifts.

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“It’s not only my risk, it’s the risk of my community and we need to address that with empathy and with the understanding we have a pretty significant amount of folks who although they’ve been vaccinated and boosted, they’re still immunocompromised and their response to the vaccine is not as robust,” Neme said. “It’s a little ask of all of us to really continue to do these measures.”

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Several COVID trends, including average hospitalizations and infection rates, are looking better, Briley said.

As of Tuesday, the state counted an average of 960 COVID hospitalizations within the past week, compared to the prior week’s average of about 1,248 hospitalizations — about a 23% decrease, Briley said.

An average of 62 patients per week were on ventilators, about a 31% decrease compared to the prior week’s average, she added.

About 10 to 15 Washingtonians continue to die of COVID per day.

“Things are overall moving in the right direction — however, we do have a couple of counties that continue to be a little harder hit than others,” she said, referring to King, Pierce and Spokane counties.

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The state has also been bringing long-term care beds into hospitals over the past few weeks, which has helped clear space out, though the hospital association continues to work on easing criteria for using the extra beds, she said.

As hospital capacity improves, health care systems are working to get delayed procedures back on schedule, Briley said.

“We both understand the desire to resume a more normal way of living with COVID, and have some concerns about what (the end of masking requirements) could mean if COVID trends increase again,” she said.