The state's public health leaders are again "strongly recommending" all Washingtonians wear face masks indoors as some COVID trends continue to steadily rise, but are not issuing any mandates.
Cases and hospitalizations have been increasing for the past two months as widespread indoor-mask requirements ended and omicron subvariants picked up steam, but state Department of Health officials continue to report severe illness and death remain much lower than during past surges. Now, their reminders of public health recommendations carry a stronger sense of urgency.
"This is the time to remind ourselves that this pandemic is not over," state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said in a Wednesday news conference. "In indoor settings that are crowded or in confined places, we absolutely want you to wear a mask."
As of early May, the state recorded a seven-day infection rate of about 245.3 cases per 100,000 people, or about 2,600 new infections per day. In mid-March, Washington's infection rate was about 40.4 cases per 100,000.
Hospitalizations recently surpassed about six COVID hospital admissions per 100,000, or about 67 new hospitalizations per day — up from fewer than two hospitalizations per 100,000 in early April.
The state's COVID death rate hasn't seen significant changes in recent months, and has consistently been on the decline since late January, according to DOH data.
"We're not returning to any broad mask requirement at this time, but strongly recommending masks be worn in crowded, indoor spaces or areas where there's poor ventilation or air quality," said Lacy Fehrenbach, the state's deputy secretary for prevention and health.
Masks are required in the state's hospitals, long-term care centers and correctional facilities, she added.
Other mitigation strategies, like frequent testing, are also encouraged since some "concerning gaps" have emerged in the state's booster rates, said Michele Roberts, who's been leading the state's COVID-19 vaccine planning and distribution team.
More than 2.8 million additional doses, including boosters, have been distributed within the state, covering about 60% of eligible Washingtonians. But rates are less than 50% in some age groups, including those between 5 and 11, 12 and 15, 16 and 17, and 18 to 34, she said.
Booster rates have also been lagging in Black, Hispanic and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities, some of which is attributable to vaccine misinformation and ongoing concerns about the shots, Shah said.
The plea for Washingtonians to maintain consistent masking habits comes as some vaccine immunity wanes and much of the population waits for a second booster to be approved by the federal government.
"We know that the vaccine effectiveness decreases with time, so certainly we've seen that the more times you get boosted, the better your immune response is," said Dr. Bob Lutz, one of DOH's COVID medical advisers who also serves on the state Board of Health. "If you find you're not quite yet eligible for a booster, I would fall back on these recommendations."