SPOKANE, Wash. — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended on Tuesday that all people in areas with significant transmission of COVID-19 wear masks indoors, whether or not they are vaccinated.
The new guidance is in response to the Delta variant of the virus, which is more contagious. The recommendation is based on levels of community transmission. The CDC has four classifications based on case rates: low, moderate, substantial and high. The mask guidance applies to counties that fall in the substantial or high categories.
In effect, that means any county with a one-week case rate of more than 50 per 100,000 people is affected by the new advice. According to CDC data, Spokane County currently sits at 259. Kootenai County is at 94.
The majority of counties in Washington and Idaho, then, are affected by this news. However, a recommendation is not the same thing as a mandate. That would more likely come from the governor or local health officers.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday that the state is recommending that residents wear masks inside public spaces regardless of vaccination status in counties where COVID-19 transmission levels are considered “high” or “substantial.”
This new guidance is a recommendation and will not be enforced or part of any compliance requirement, according to Inslee.
Spokane Health Officer Dr. Frank Velazquez said he is not issuing a local mask mandate. However, he is upgrading his advice to more strongly urge people to wear masks in crowded public settings.
"I am going from recommending that you think about it, to really strongly encouraging you to do it if at all possible," he said in an interview with KREM. "It is the best way to protect yourself. More importantly, it is the best way that you can protect those around you. And it is the best way we can continue moving the community forward, which at the end of the day is what we all want to do."
The CDC's policy shift was made because science suggests the Delta variant can be transmitted even by fully vaccinated people. That wasn't true for previous variants. So even though the vaccine is highly effective, and vaccinated people only experience mild symptoms if they contract Delta, they can still get and spread the virus.
That's a concern because there are still a large number of unvaccinated people, including immunocompromised people and children. The CDC said only about 30 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated. There is no vaccine approved yet for kids ages 11 and younger.
That's why Velazquez says masking in certain settings is important.
"I... tend to think about those around me that I can protect, and that's what I focus on," he said. "Family members and friends that are not eligible for immunization, that may be around me, I want to protect them. People in the community... now we can finally go to restaurants and many other things... so I want to protect that. So I will continue doing anything and everything I can."
The CDC also said it is recommending that everyone in K-12 schools wear masks when they return in the fall. Students, teachers, and other staff should mask up regardless of vaccination status, per the new guidelines.
Again, however, that is a recommendation, not a mandate.
The state will also continue its existing school guidance, which matches with the CDC’s masking guidance for the upcoming school year in K-12. Inslee said all students and employees will be required to wear masks around each other in the building.