PORT ANGELES — A refusal by residents to get COVID-19 vaccinations or wear masks, coupled with an increase in infections, should prompt a return to universal indoors masking on the North Olympic Peninsula as soon as Monday, the Clallam-Jefferson County health officer said Thursday.
Regional health officers will advise their counties on the Peninsula and in Puget Sound to re-institute non-mandatory guidance that masks should be worn in public gathering places in both government and business sectors, Dr. Allison Berry said.
The recommendation would apply to vaccinated individuals as well those who have not had to wear masks in most settings.
“We do not want to move to a lockdown,” Berry said.
“The challenge we are seeing is that opinions are hardening about vaccinations.”
Berry said the newly infected are almost exclusively unvaccinated, and those who are fully vaccinated who get COVID-19 experience symptoms that don’t lead to hospitalization — commonly a temporary loss of smell.
“This is really being driven by unvaccinated folks who are unmasked and indoors,” she said, adding that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals “should start masking up now.”
Deputy Health Officer Tom Locke, former Jefferson County health officer, ended Jefferson’s mask mandate on June 30, when Gov. Jay Inslee reopened the state to normal capacity and operations, leaving in place federal guidelines allowing the fully vaccinated to shed their masks in indoor settings.
The unvaccinated were left on their own to don masks at gatherings and in indoor settings such as businesses, which can impose mask requirements but have largely cast those aside.
On Thursday, Locke referred queries on masking to Berry and did not return calls for comment on the coronavirus.
“A Puget Sound-area health officer press release is in the works, likely for next Monday,” he said in a text message.
Jefferson County had 479 coronavirus cases as of Thursday, a 1.81 percent positivity rate and a case rate of 50.16 per 100,000.
At a Clallam County Board of Health meeting Tuesday, Berry said the revival of masking for all individuals, vaccinated or not, should apply to the board’s August meeting, which is expected to have numerous participants and that chairs in the courthouse hearing room should be spaced to ensure social distancing.
Berry acknowledged that returning to universal masking may be stressful for vaccinated individuals.
Berry said the goal of reviving mask-wearing by all individuals is to to avoid returning to capacity restrictions.
“It’s mainly based on the idea that we need the least intensive intervention we can do to try to keep the economy open, keep our hospitals open and keep our society functioning, especially in light of the variants we’re seeing,” she said.
“We were just going on the honor system, and the honor system’s not working,
“If we cannot verify vaccination status in a space, we should all put our masks back on.”
COVID-19 in Clallam County spread by 26 cases from Monday to Thursday to 1,582, including five from Wednesday to Thursday.
That bulked up the case rate to 124 per 100,000 population, a spike of 36 per 100,000 since Monday, further cementing Clallam’s status as a high-COVID-risk county.
The percentage of Clallam County population vaccinated is 56.5 percent.
The positivity rate is increasing. It was 4.7 percent from July 5-18 but is 3.1 percent since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We need to get this under control sooner rather than later, and masking is an important part of that,” Berry said Thursday.
The COVID-19 vaccine “works great,” Berry said.
“The downside is human behavior,” she said.
“If you walk into a grocery store, and everyone is wearing a mask, you put a mask on. Unless you are really belligerent, you would put a mask on, and most of us did,” Berry said.
After restrictions were lifted, “a lot of us took our masks off because most of us were vaccinated, and many of the unvaccinated took their masks off,” she said.
“Very few places are checking vaccine status.”
The Delta variant, which surfaced in India and which the Centers for Disease Control says accounts for 83 percent of cases nationwide, is more transmissible but has not yet been seen in Clallam County.
“It’s really a matter of time,” Berry said.
The Alpha variant, known as the U.K. variant, is prevalent on the West End and has been seen in a significant number of Port Angeles cases, she said.
The Gamma variant, first identified in Brazil, is more transmissible than the Delta variant, Berry said.
More concerning to Berry than the Delta variant is the Gamma variant, which has emerged in Clallam County. Those infected are hospitalized and die at higher rates, even if they are young and healthier patients, she said.
“It’s only in isolated parts of the country where we are seeing the Gamma variant, and one of those parts is where we live,” Berry said.
“It’s vaccines against the variants, and right now, we are losing.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].