Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent guidance relaxing mask mandates for vaccinated people, King County’s top public health official is urging residents to keep wearing masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.
Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer with Public Health – Seattle & King County, said that for now, Seattle and King County residents are strongly encouraged to continue wearing masks while the agency evaluates its broader mask mandate.
The mixed messaging comes after the CDC last week eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to stop masking up outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings, though it still calls for masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.
The CDC’s shift in guidance took many Americans by surprise, and politicians, businesses and residents are now sorting out whether they feel ready to ditch the masks. While some states, like New York, are allowing fully vaccinated residents to stop wearing masks immediately, others are waiting a bit longer, including California, which will keep its mask requirements in place until mid-June.
Washington also aligned with federal guidelines and dropped many mask requirements for fully vaccinated people as of last week, but Duchin said on Twitter Monday that he agreed with a statement saying it was unwise for the CDC “to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated people so early … The point of vaccinating most of the population is to get us all to the point where we halt viral transmission & everyone can then interact unmasked.”
Duchin also encouraged businesses to keep mask policies in place.
When asked whether Duchin’s statement represented the official viewpoint of Public Health – Seattle & King County, department spokesperson James Apa said the agency is evaluating whether ending the indoor mask mandate is the best option in King County. The department will provide an update later this week, Apa said.
“Right now, our health officer is advising everyone to continuing wearing masks in indoor public spaces, whether vaccinated or not,” he added.
Case numbers have gradually been dropping in King County over the past few weeks: At the end of April, the county was reporting about 264 cases per 100,000 residents, but the number has since dropped to about 225 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.
In total, King County has reported 3,157 new COVID-19 cases within the past 14 days, though the most recent infection rates weren’t available due to delays in negative tests reported to DOH, according to Tuesday data from the county. About 69% of King County residents have received at least one vaccine dose.
In Snohomish County, county health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said the public and businesses should continue following the state’s current masking guidance until new guidelines are issued.
In response to a question during the health district’s weekly news briefing about whether he agrees with the new CDC guidelines, he said that is a “tough one” and that a vaccinated person’s risk of infection is markedly lower if exposed to the virus. He did say people with compromised immune systems should consider wearing masks even if vaccinated.
“I would support and recommend, especially for people who are severely immunosuppressed and have multiple comorbid conditions, there’s no harm in playing it on the safe side and avoiding crowded indoor spaces,” Spitters said. “But putting a mask on even if it only makes you feel more comfortable, there’s certainly no harm in that.”
Meanwhile, all of the state’s counties are now in Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, the state Department of Health announced Tuesday. The move comes after a two-week pause Inslee implemented this month, which has since been lifted due to declining COVID-19 case counts and a push to increase vaccination rates, DOH said.
As of Monday, the state had reported an infection rate of about 553 cases per 10,000 residents, with a seven-day average of about 42,521 vaccine shots administered per day. About 58.8% of eligible Washingtonians have received their first shot, while about 46.8% are fully vaccinated.
Cowlitz, Ferry, Pierce and Whitman counties had previously been stuck in Phase 2. While state Secretary of Health Umair Shah noted in the DOH statement that he’s pleased to see daily case counts going down, the state needs to continue its vaccination efforts.
“To fully reopen and protect our communities, we want to see at least 70% of eligible Washington residents get their first dose — right now, we’re at about 59%, so we still have a ways to go,” Shah said in the statement.
If statewide ICU capacity reaches 90% at any point, health officials will again implement virus restrictions, the state said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly linked to an outdated public health directive.