Lewis County joined a growing number of jurisdictions across Washington now recommending that residents, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially the highly-transmissible delta variant spreading through the United States.
Public Health Director JP Anderson made the announcement Wednesday, saying the county’s health officers Dr. Alan Melnick and Dr. Steven Krager — who oversee five other Southwest Washington counties — are now backing new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which recommends universal masking where the delta variant is spreading.
“I don’t know if there will be an escalation, and that (recommendation) will become a stronger recommendation or a requirement. They don’t have the intention at this time to do that,” Anderson said. “They’re simply supporting the CDC guidance.”
An hour later, Gov. Jay Inslee also announced that the state would follow those same guidelines, but won’t impose new mask mandates. Masks are still required for unvaccinated Washingtonians.
On Monday, health officers from eight Washington counties signed a joint statement similarly urging all residents to don masks regardless of vaccination status. Officials point to new data suggesting the delta variant — now likely making up the majority of cases in the state — can be spread even after vaccination.
The CDC guidelines apply to parts of the United States with case rates of at least 50 per 100,000. Currently, Lewis County sits at 135.8, according to state data. A handful of counties fall below that threshold — including Wahkiakum — but the state as a whole is sitting at 117.6, and cases are on the upswing.
The new recommendation for Lewis County is “pretty disheartening,” Anderson said, adding that “as long as we have large amounts of unvaccianted folks, we will continue to see mutations. And that’s just how that works.”
In the chambers where Anderson relayed the information, masks have already proved contentious. Commissioner Sean Swope has recently sported a mask reading “worn under protest,” and at least one indigent elected official has refused to mask up under the state’s mandate.
The new recommendation is not intended to discourage individuals from getting vaccinated, Anderson told The Chronicle. In fact, new data from several Southwest Washington counties illustrate how effective the shots are against serious outcomes of COVID-19.
Anderson said the data — expected to be formally released this week — show that partial vaccination reduced the risk of hospitalization by 75%, while full vaccination reduced it by 90%. Of the more than 61,000 residents 45 to 64 years old fully vaccinated between March 22 and June 27, fewer than 10 were hospitalized for the virus. And 91% of that age group who did end up in the hospital for the virus were unvaccinated.
It’s evidence of the positive impact of vaccines. But in a county with only 36.4% of residents fully vaccinated, it’s also a reminder of the danger of the highly-transmissible delta variant.
This week, Lewis County public health officials released data showing a weeks-long streak of increasing cases, mirroring what the state’s top epidemiologist has called a “fifth wave” of infections.
This week, 66 new cases were reported in Lewis County, along with two new hospitalizations. The low hospitalizations and no new deaths is good news, Anderson said, although those metrics often lag two to three weeks behind infection rates.
Meanwhile, vaccine uptake continues to stall locally, although public health officials are retaining their capacity to ramp up inoculation efforts.
“Frankly, we’re hoping to see a surge in demand,” Anderson told The Chronicle.