Healthcare Facilities Mask Mandate to Stay in Place in Washington


OLYMPIA — While most emergency orders issued by Gov. Jay Inslee in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic will end Oct. 31, the order requiring masks in healthcare facilities, and in jails and prisons in some situations, will not. Washington Secretary of Health Umair Shah said in a briefing Thursday that conditions still don't support ending that mandate.

"We may simply not be there yet," Shah said.

Masks will still be mandatory in all healthcare facilities, and in jails when there's a moderate to high risk of spreading coronavirus.

Shah said the masking order for hospitals and jails came from the Secretary of Health, and as a result isn't subject to the end of the governor's orders.

Connie Agenbroad, chief executive officer at Othello Community Hospital, said the hospital's guidelines are being evaluated.

"We are in the process of reviewing and hope to have some clarifications by next week," Agenbroad wrote Thursday in response to a question from the Herald.

Glenda Bishop, chief executive officer at Quincy Valley Medical Center, said the status quo will remain in place for Quincy.

"We do not have plans to change any of our current requirements," Bishop wrote Thursday. "We continue to mask and follow recommendations related to testing employees if they experience symptoms."

While Shah said the end of the state of emergency is an incredibly important milestone for the state, he also said the coronavirus is still out there, however — about 7% of the hospital beds in use in the state are being used by coronavirus patients.

Coronavirus hospitalizations are going down, which follows the nationwide trend, Shah said. But health department officials are urging state residents to continue to take precautions against the coronavirus.

Lacy Fehrenbach, Washington Department of Health chief of safety, prevention and health, said ending the state of emergency is the end of one phase of the state's response to the pandemic.

"It really marks a transition," she said.

The order mandating masks in hospitals and prisons is likely to be amended in the future, she said, but not now.

"Continue to be smart with (individual) protection and prevention efforts," Shah said. "Vaccination remains such an incredibly important part of that protection."

Colder weather also means the start of flu season. The flu season has been very mild the last two years, Shah said, with people spending more time at home and less time in crowds in confined spaces. People are going out and about again, he said, which may contribute to an increase in flu cases. With the flu, as with the coronavirus, vaccination is a good way to avoid getting the disease, he said.

Fehrenbach said coronavirus and influenza are both respiratory diseases, so people should think about taking similar precautions against the flu.

"A quality, well-fitting mask is one of the best tools you have," she said.

Proper hygiene — washing hands and covering a cough or sneeze — are good precautions also, she said.

People should think about getting the "bivalent" coronavirus booster, which will protect against the coronavirus omicron variant, which is the most common right now, Fehrenbach said.

Grant County Health District officials announced Wednesday that the bivalent booster will be available at free vaccine clinics scheduled starting next week at all NCW Libraries locations in Grant County.

The press conference also addressed monkeypox. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, DOH chief science officer, said state officials are reporting 556 cases of monkeypox currently, most of them in King County.