On Thurs. May 20th, Public Health – Seattle & King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin has issued a Health Officer Directive strongly urging all residents, fully vaccinated or not, to temporarily continue wearing face masks in public indoor settings, warning that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are still at elevated levels despite decreasing rates.
“Continued use of face masks for everyone five years of age and older within indoor public spaces is reasonable and necessary in King County to reduce the risk for COVID-19 transmission until more of the population is protected through vaccination and COVID-19 disease rates decline,” the Directive states.
In addition to the local Directive, the Washington State Department of Health Order continues to require everyone to wear face masks in schools, public transportation, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, and health care settings, including doctor’s offices, long-term care, and hospitals.
“Some may wonder why they should wear a mask if they are vaccinated, especially since we agree that COVID-19 vaccines give high protection against infection and spreading the virus, and unvaccinated people are the ones at risk to acquire and spread COVID-19. It’s because we have no way to know who is vaccinated and who isn’t, and it’s impractical for businesses to determine that,” said Duchin. “If unvaccinated people do not wear masks, the risk for COVID-19 spread increases. From a practical and community health perspective, the most reliable way to ensure everyone is safe is for everyone to wear a face mask in indoor public spaces for a few more weeks, until we get vaccination rates higher and disease rates lower.”
“I strongly urge all people in King County to voluntarily comply with this Directive, and urge all businesses that are open to the public, including grocery and other retail establishments, to continue policies and practices to ensure that their customers and employees continue to wear face masks,” the Directive continues.
“We have made enormous progress, but there are still hundreds of thousands among us who are at risk and are putting others at risk,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “This is the moment when our community can turn the corner into a summer of rebuilding – but recovery depends on every person in King County doing their part, getting their shot, and taking the simple precautions needed to stamp out the virus.”
“King County has done remarkably well compared to other parts of the U.S. throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and although we are beginning the transition towards fewer mandates and more personal decision making, we need to continue doing what’s been working for us for a bit longer,” said Patty Hayes, Director for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “Please continue to use your mask in indoor public spaces while we get disease rates lower, more people vaccinated and more of our community protected. To help get us back to normal as soon as possible, get vaccinated soon.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance to allow fully vaccinated people to stop wearing masks in many settings. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and the Washington State Department of Health have also noted that ending indoor mask mandates should be linked to local circumstances.
Public Health took a number of factors into consideration in issuing this Directive, including:
- While King County vaccination rates are leading the nation, large segments of our population are not yet fully vaccinated.
- Rates of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain elevated in King County.
- Gathering indoors without masks with no way of knowing who is and who is not vaccinated raises the level of risk for COVID-19 spread for customers and workers.
- The burden of COVID-19 is disproportionately higher in some parts of our community, due to underlying causes such as living and working conditions and access to vaccine. This includes people in neighborhoods in south and southeast King County, younger age groups, and residents of color.
- Many people with certain health conditions don’t have the option of getting vaccinated to protect themselves. They rely instead on us as a community to protect them.
- Children 12-15 years and young adults only recently became eligible for vaccination.
Furthermore, with no practical way to know who is or is not vaccinated in public spaces, a policy that has different rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people is difficult to implement and unfairly shifts the burden to businesses and frontline workers. When unvaccinated people are not wearing masks indoors, they are at risk both of getting COVID-19 themselves as well as spreading it to others.
Given the racial disparities that exists regarding the impact of COVID-19 in the area, advocates say that it is very important that minority and other vulnerable communities, particularly the African American community, adhere to the directive in order for us to see further decreases in COVID cases in the area.
“We have witnessed the ways the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in our community,” said Michelle Merriweather, President & CEO, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. “Throughout this pandemic, front-line workers—many whom are from communities of color–have had to bear the burden of increased risk of getting COVID-19. Until more people are vaccinated, by continuing to wear a mask in indoor public spaces, we are helping to protect those who provide critical services for our community. I believe this is the right action to take as we strive for equity until this pandemic is behind us.”
According to officials, this directive will remain in effect until Public Health – Seattle & King County confirms that 70% or more of residents age 16 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Someone is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second shot (or in the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, their first shot). Public Health currently projects the county will reach the threshold in late June.
“Masking, social distancing and other public health measures have been the foundation to protecting our communities during the pandemic, said Dr. Steve Pergam, Associate Professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Medical Director of Infection Prevention at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “Now with highly efficacious vaccines and widely available vaccination locations, we can begin to imagine getting back to our normal lives. But we can’t let our guard down too early. Indoor environments have been shown to be where transmission risk is highest, so continuing masking policies can only help speed our recovery while we wait for more to be vaccinated. Masking also helps to protect our community’s most vulnerable populations. Cancer and other immunosuppressed patients are at high risk for COVID-19 complications, and many remain at risk because they are less likely to respond to available vaccines. So, a few more weeks of wearing your mask or stepping up to get vaccinated is not just good public health practice – it could save lives.”