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King County Health Officer Recommends That All People Should Wear Masks Indoors Once Again

But Dr. Jeffrey Duchin stopped short of issuing a strict mandate

A blue cloth face mask next to a table setting and a bottle of hand sanitizer
COVID cases have been on the rise in King County of late.

In a July 23 press conference, King County health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin said he is now recommending that all people, whether fully vaccinated or not, should wear masks indoors again, particularly in crowded settings such as restaurants. But he stopped short of issuing a strict mandate or directive, like the one that expired June 29, and doesn’t think one will be needed. “I think that the level of vaccination that we’ve achieved in King County will protect us from a severe outbreak that would threaten our health care system,” he said, adding that he’d rather rely on the good sense and voluntary cooperation by King County residents for masks. “On the other hand, all of us need to be aware of the risk the delta variance poses.”

Duchin emphasized that there remains quite a bit of uncertainty about the impact of changing behaviors now that many COVID-related restrictions have been lifted and the more contagious delta variant is prevalent. Though 75.6 percent of King County residents 16 years of age and older are fully vaccinated, the health officer pointed to the nearly 700,000 residents who remained unvaccinated (including more than 300,000 young children still ineligible for the vaccine); the 10,000 immunocompromised people in King County where vaccines may not be as effective in preventing illness; and the large numbers of tourists and visitors with unknown vaccination status as factors to consider. “We do not expect a return to the high level of hospitalizations and deaths we’ve experienced in the past, but we could see a surge of preventable illness and hospitalizations,” he said.

The number of new COVID cases in King County has more than doubled (130 percent) since the original mask directive was lifted June 29, and hospitalizations are on the rise as well. It’s with that in mind that Duchin urges people to wear masks “as an extra layer of protection to keep us all safer” in settings such as grocery stores, restaurants, and movie theaters, where it’s unclear who is or isn’t vaccinated. He also emphasized that businesses should continue to seek ways to increase more ventilation for their indoor spaces, including evaluating their HVAC system and consider portable HEPA filtration units.

Even though the original King County mask directive has expired, the Washington state’s department of health still requires unvaccinated people to wear face coverings indoors and advises everyone (vaccinated or not) to continue masking up in certain settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, and schools with unvaccinated children. The guidance also notes to “respect the room you’re in,” which means that if a business still has a mask mandate in effect, they still have the right to refuse service to those who refuse to comply.

Other areas of the country, including L.A. County, Clark County in Nevada, New Orleans, and Austin, Texas, have reinstated stronger mask requirements or similar recommendations to Duchin due to a spike in COVID cases. But, until this point, many local and state officials have been reluctant to take such a step. “We are using the tool of vaccinations,” Gov, Jay Inslee said in a press conference last week. “That’s the ultimate answer to this pandemic. We don’t want to be wearing masks for the next 32 years — vaccines stop this thing dead.”

Duchin also drove home the point of how effective vaccines are. He said that, even though there have been instances of breakthrough cases in King County, those are expected — and they’re rare. A study taken between June 9 and July 6 showed that about 14 percent of COVID cases in King County came among fully vaccinated people, compared to 86 percent who were not vaccinated. And the vast majority of COVID hospitalizations — 94 percent — came among those who were not fully vaccinated. “Vaccination is the single most important thing you can do to protect you and people around you,” Duchin said.