OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee has urged everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to don face masks when in public indoor settings where there is “substantial or high” rates of COVID-19.
The state will continue to require that all students and employees of K-12 schools wear masks when instruction resumes for the upcoming school year. That requirement for schools is statewide and not up to the local jurisdictions, Inslee stressed during a Wednesday press conference.
He said he didn’t want to make the new guidance — which follows federal guidelines — mandatory because it could take away a benefit from those who are vaccinated, and he still has hopes that vaccination rates will increase in the coming weeks.
“People who aren’t vaccinated right now are a danger to their fellow citizens. They create a risk to their fellow citizens, and that’s a danger that we can’t ignore,” Inslee said as he stressed the importance of getting vaccinated against the virus and decried misinformation about the vaccine.
State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah reiterated that his order requiring unvaccinated people to wear masks while indoors is still in effect and is legally binding.
Officials for Jefferson County governments also modified their procedures Wednesday, requiring the public to wear face masks while inside county-run facilities. Clallam County is requesting, not requiring, that the public wear masks inside.
Both counties also require staff members who deal with the public to be masked.
Inslee’s recommendation matches one made Monday by health officers for Clallam and Jefferson counties, as well as Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap, San Juan and Grays Harbor counties to return to indoor mask wearing as the more contagious Delta variant spreads across the state, and case and hospitalization rates continue to increase.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the Delta variant of the coronavirus is fueling infection surges.
Statewide, vaccination rates have dropped significantly from the peak of 60,000 vaccinations a day in April and May, Inslee said.
“Those levels need to increase dramatically to break the back of the pandemic,” Inslee said. “There is one way out of this pandemic, and that’s more vaccinations.
“This vaccine works and, frankly, it’s maddening that we have a lifesaving medicine that’s free, but we’re still in this position.”
Inslee said more stringent masking mandates and possible vaccination mandates for state employees are in discussions if pandemic conditions continue to worsen.
He said he doesn’t want businesses to be forced to close again.
State officials are also eyeing requiring health care and hospital workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they have a medical exemption.
More information is to be released over the next few weeks.
“We don’t want hospital workers infecting their patients,” Inslee said.
Requiring them to be vaccinated “is something worthy of consideration,” he added.
The Jefferson County commissioners approved two resolutions in a special meeting Wednesday, enacting more stringent masking requirements for staff and requiring the public to wear face masks while inside county facilities.
Clallam County emailed a memorandum to staff Wednesday highlighting new requirements for mask wearing, and it is requesting all public visitors wear a mask indoors.
“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines state you should be wearing a mask in public places (indoors),” said Rich Sill, Clallam County interim county administrator/HR director in an email Wednesday.
“We request that all individuals wear a mask while in the facility, and we provide masks at our entry points.”
Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Jefferson and Clallam counties, said that, since Monday’s announcement, she has noticed more people wearing masks in businesses, especially in grocery stores.
“I have seen an increase really noticeably since we made the recommendation and since it was published and since you guys talked about it,” Berry said. “We’ve seen a significant increase.
“When I go to the grocery store, I see more people wearing masks, and certainly many employers have already enacted policies requiring masking in the store.”
Clallam County confirmed seven new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, while Jefferson County confirmed five new cases.
Clallam County’s case rate decreased slightly to 142 cases per 100,000 population for the past two weeks as of Wednesday. Jefferson County had a case rate of 72.1 per 100,000 for the two weeks prior as of Saturday.
According to a CDC tracker, 13 counties in Washington state have high levels of community transmission, 13 have substantial levels, 12 are listed as moderate, and just one — Garfield County — has low levels.
Clallam County is in the state’s high-risk category, while Jefferson County is at the high end of the moderate-risk category.
Clallam County has confirmed 167 COVID-19 cases so far this month, about 10.23 percent of the 1,633 cases reported since the pandemic began, according to county data. Seventeen residents have died of the disease.
Jefferson County has confirmed 52 COVID-19 cases so far this month, about 10.36 percent of the 502 cases reported since the start of the pandemic, according to county public health data. Four residents have died of the virus.
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.