Region’s health officer warns of lifting mask mandates too soon

Governor plans announcement next week regarding health measures

The North Olympic Peninsula’s health officer is concerned that history is repeating itself as the governor announced the likelihood of state masking mandates ending soon.

Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday he plans an announcement next week regarding lifting masking mandates.

“It’s a question of when the change happens, not if it will happen,” Mike Faulk, spokesperson for the governor’s office, told The Seattle Times.

“We’ve been talking to agencies and stakeholders about the rates declining and when the right time would be to lift additional mitigation measures like masks.”

Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, referred to the temporary lifting of masking mandates last summer prior to the delta variant outbreak.

“I am concerned with what we are seeing nationally, and even the discussions that are happening at the state level,” she said.

“We have a really unfortunate history in this country and in this state of basically spiking the ball at the 10-yard line,” she added.

Although the omicron surge is winding down, she fears mitigation measures are being softened too soon.

That “either prolongs the surge or creates another very serious wave, and that’s what happened last summer,” Berry said.

“If we revoke our mitigation measures too soon as a community and as a state, we will prolong this surge,” she added.

“So I hope that our governor can maintain some fortitude to keep the masking order in place a little longer.”

Inslee also said Wednesday that an outdoor mask requirement for people at gatherings of 500 or more would be lifted effective Feb. 18.

He announced an end to the pause of elective surgeries starting that same day, as hospitalization levels for the virus continue to trend downward, and he said the Washington National Guard will no longer be needed to help in those facilities.

Berry said based on the data available now that she would be comfortable with the mandate being lifted in mid-summer, but not earlier.

“If we kept masking through May for June, I think it would be very safe to revoke the mandate then,” Berry said. “I am worried about all the political pressure we’re going to see it revoked sooner than that and sooner than it’s safe to do so.”

Even if the mandates were to be lifted statewide, Clallam and Jefferson counties still have mandates at the local level that require masking. But Berry believes it would be challenging to maintain that order without the backing of the state.

Washington’s masking requirements for K-12 schools and indoor public spaces and businesses remain in effect for now.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal appealed to Inslee, asking that the masking mandate for schools be lifted or at least be left to local jurisdictions to decide.

Reykdal told The Seattle Times, “current laws empower local health officials to assess health and safety risks and determine local strategies.

“Given the varied vaccination rates and adherence to other mitigation strategies across the regions in our state, it is time to return decision-making to local health officials.”

Many parents have said their children experience mental health crises while wearing a mask, according to national reports.

“There is no data for this,” Berry said.

“What is challenging for students is the position that they are put in when they see the misbehavior of their parents. When we see them put in a position where their parents are encouraging them not to wear masks and their teachers are saying they have to, that’s a really difficult position for kids,” Berry said.

In terms of combating the virus, Washington state is among those in the nation that have done better than many others. Clallam and Jefferson counties have some of the lowest numbers of infections and deaths from the virus in the nation.

Clallam County reported another death ascribed to COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the death toll since the pandemic began to 97.

The deceased had been vaccinated but had not had a booster shot and was in her 80s with underlying conditions, Berry said.

The county added 69 new cases on Wednesday, bringing its total cases since the pandemic began to 10,166. The case rate was 1,318 per 100,000 population for the past two weeks, down from Tuesday’s case rate of 1,334 cases per 100,000.

Jefferson County added 20 cases, bringing its total to 2,797. Its case rate, which is now 1,068 cases per 100,000 population, is updated each Friday.

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Reporter Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].

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