PORT ANGELES — Masking requirements are being loosened in Clallam and Jefferson counties in varying degrees in the wake of federal and state pronouncements last week about COVID-19.
But a dwindling COVID-19 vaccination rate threatens Clallam County’s chances for reopening businesses by June 30, a statewide goal set last week by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Berry, who unlike Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke recommended last week that fully vaccinated residents can go maskless indoors and outdoors, put a damper on Inslee’s reopening outlook Friday at her weekly pandemic briefing.
In keeping with his Inslee’s new guidelines, fully vaccinated individuals in Clallam County do not have to wear a mask “in pretty much any setting with a few exceptions,” including workplaces and in public, Berry said with a caveat.
“One of the challenges of this guidance, and one of the concerns I’ve heard about it is, ‘How do you know the people around you are vaccinated?’ and I think it’s a challenge in the way it was rolled out, because we don’t have a vaccine passport,” she said.
“Right now, we’re going on the honor system.”
Locke said Saturday he expects to announce at Monday’s county commissioners meeting a loosening of his masking mandate — Clallam lacks the edict — and allow unmasked outdoor gatherings for vaccinated and for unvaccinated residents.
Unvaccinated, unmasked individuals face a one-in-a-thousand chance of contracting the virus outdoors, he said.
But he will keep the face-covering requirement for indoors in place, expressing reservations similar to Berry’s.
“Unless I see directly that it’s safe to end the indoor masking mandate, my inclination at this point is to continue it for indoor retail spaces and not put the burden on businesses to determine immunity status,” he said.
On Thursday, Inslee adopted Centers for Disease Control guidelines announced earlier Thursday that loosen most indoor and outdoor mask-wearing restrictions for fully vaccinated individuals that can be superseded by local jurisdictions.
Businesses can continue to require face coverings, and masks are still recommended for users of public transportation and for airline passengers, health-care workers, people in health care and long-term care facilities, and people with compromised health conditions.
Walmart Inc. announced last week that fully vaccinated customers need not wear a mask beginning Friday and that fully vaccinated employees do not need one beginning this Tuesday in stores in areas where there is no mask mandate.
Costco also dropped the requirement Friday for members.
Inslee also said the economy can fully reopen by June 30 if 70 percent of residents 16 and older statewide are vaccinated by then, about 13 percentage points higher than last week’s statewide vaccination rate.
In Jefferson County, 69 percent of residents have received one dose and 60 percent are fully vaccinated, Locke said.
Fifty percent of the Clallam County residents have received their first dose, while 44 percent are fully vaccinated, Berry said Friday.
There are no outbreaks that county officials are tracking. But recent new cases — unrelated to three recent outbreaks — are popping up mostly on the West End, which raises concerns that undetected transmission is occurring in that part of the county, Berry said.
“We’ll be doing more investigation on that and trying to scale up testing resources,” she said.
Locke said Washington state has the 11th highest COVID-10 cases per 100,000 population in the U.S.
He agreed that the vaccine is highly effective in protecting individuals and stopping transmission.
The CDC revised its mask-wearing guidelines after recent studies showed fully vaccinated individuals had a minuscule likelihood of contracting COVID-19 variants or of transmitting the coronavirus to other individuals.
Effectiveness was 94 percent among health care professionals who were fully vaccinated and 64 percent among health care professionals who were partially vaccinated, according to the CDC. The single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, in limited use at the time of the study, was not part of the review.
Locke is worried unvaccinated individuals without masks will gather indoors with vaccinated individuals and still cause more infections among themselves.
He said one in four people remain strongly opposed to vaccination or feel they should have a right to go unmasked.
“I do not see a practical way for separating immunized and unimmunized people in retail stores and grocery stores and indoor public places without masks,” he said.
“I fully expect unvaccinated people will enjoy the freedom to go indoors without masks along with people who are fully vaccinated.”
Berry said Saturday an additional COVID-19 case was reported Saturday, upping the total to seven since in Clallam County since Thursday and 1,312 since the pandemic began.
She said three people were being hospitalized as of Saturday, down from five as of Friday, when four were in a critical care unit. Their ages ranged from their the 30s the 60s.
“We are at a critical census with these hospitalizations,” Berry said Friday.
She said Clallam County COVID-19 case rate remained in the high-risk category at 109 cases per 100,000 population and that the positivity rate had improved but was still too high.
Locke said Jefferson County had an increase of one coronavirus case to 412 as of Friday. Jefferson County is in the moderate-risk category with 63 cases per 100,000.
No one was being hospitalized in Jefferson County as of Saturday.
Locke said a Jefferson County woman was stable in a Seattle hospital with COVID-19 as of Wednesday.
Three have died from the coronavirus in Jefferson County and nine in Clallam.
Berry doubted the state can reopen to full capacity in indoor settings by June 30.
“Whether or not that reopening is successful will depend on the rest of us,” she said.
“There’s really no science to say the virus is gong to be gone by June 30.
“I think this was more of a political decision than a science-based decision.
“I think if we’re at herd immunity, it’s absolutely safe to fully reopen.
“The question is will we be by June 30? I don’t know,” she said.
“At our current trajectory, unlikely.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.