With the delta variant of COVID-19 making up the majority of cases in Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee now recommends wearing masks indoors across the board, regardless of vaccination status.
During a July 28 press conference, the governor announced the new recommendation as part of an update on the state’s ongoing response against the pandemic. The recommendation is not a legal requirement, though Washington State Secretary of Health Umair Shah noted the requirement for unvaccinated individuals to mask up remains.
The recommendation comes as the delta variant of COVID-19 has become the most common strain spreading in Washington. Lacy Fehrenbach, state deputy health secretary for COVID-19 response, said the variant made up around 70% of cases in the first two weeks of July, but current modeling predicts it is now responsible for 96% of cases.
Inslee said the variant has slowed the state’s progress in combating the pandemic, combined with the slowing of COVID-19 vaccinations in the state in recent weeks. He said the current increase of infections presents a curve essentially as steep as those in prior waves of transmission.
The governor said the variant is “easily the most dangerous mutation to date of this virus,” adding it is twice as transmissible and more likely to produce serious symptoms.
“You might think of this as a new virus in some sense given how different it is from the previous virus mutations,” Inslee said.
The state hit daily peaks of vaccine doses administered in April with around 80,000 a day, though now the daily doses given is closer to 10,000, according to a graph Inslee presented. Vaccination rates on a per-county basis differ greatly, as another graph he presented shows San Juan County with more than 81% of residents 12 and older have initiated vaccination, compared to the low end of below 32% in Garfield County.
“That disparity is dangerous,” Inslee said.
Inslee said the masking guidance isn’t a requirement for those who are vaccinated in acknowledgement that many who received vaccines did so under the assumption they wouldn’t have to continue to wear masks.
“We also think there is a significant possibility that we’re going to increase our vaccination rate,” Inslee added.
Alongside the recommendation for indoor masking, Inslee also announced the continued requirement for all students and staff in K-12 schools to wear masks in school buildings. Unlike the new recommendation, masking in schools is a legal requirement, he noted.
Inslee said the state could reconsider the policy in the coming weeks and months if infection rates begin to drop again.
“Certainly while this virus is increasing is not the time to decrease the protection of our young children,” Inslee said.
Apart from the continuation of masking requirements in schools, updated guidance will allow for more flexibility outside of the classroom and updates to quarantine procedures in schools, Fehrenbach said.
Although Washington has not joined states like New York and California that require state employees to be vaccinated or regularly tested, Inslee said similar measures may be considered. He added it is possible that COVID-19 vaccinations could be required for students, though not at this time.
“Our kids have been getting vaccinated for mumps, and pertussis and measles for decades — for decades this has been standard operating procedure in the state of Washington, but at the moment we’re looking for success through other means,” Inslee said.
Inslee said two viruses are spreading in the state — COVID-19 and misinformation about the vaccine. To combat the latter, Inslee said the state has started the “Power of Providers Initiative,” which intends to get medical providers to actively reach out to their patients about vaccinations.
Inslee said previous goals for vaccination rates in the state aren’t sufficient for the delta variant, though as of the press conference, he wasn’t ready to announce a new target.
“People who are unvaccinated right now are a danger to their fellow citizens … and that’s a danger that we can’t ignore,” Inslee said.