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Here’s why Gov. Inslee is ending Washington’s mask mandate on March 21 and not sooner

The state's goal is to reach just five hospital admissions per 100,000 residents.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that the state’s indoor mask mandate will be ending March 21 for most indoor venues amid the rapidly falling number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The date, which falls on a Monday more than a month after the announcement, may seem arbitrary to most residents.

Still, Inslee said Thursday that the goal for lifting the mask mandate is reducing the state’s COVID-19 hospital occupancy to five patients per 100,000 Washingtonians. According to the latest modeling from the state’s Department of Health (DOH), the state will reach that goal by March 21.

“We have done a rigorous assessment. At that level of hospital admissions, the hospitals will be able to have relatively normal functions at that level of admissions,” Inslee said Thursday.

Credit: DOH
The state health department projects hospitalizations will be down to five per 100,000 residents by March 21.

As of Feb. 15, the state’s seven-day hospitalization rate is just under 22 patients per 100,000 residents, according to data from the DOH.

Inslee also noted that March 21 being a Monday is significant in that it gives students heading back to school a chance to start new rules on a new week.

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Secretary of Health for the DOH Dr. Umair Shah said the death rate is another key metric the state is looking at to determine whether or not to lift mandates.

“We're also seeing we had seen an increase in deaths across Washington that has also started to decline,” Shah said. “I do want to just make mention that as we do this, we continue to look at all this information and then come to what that projection is.”

Shah added that after March 21, the state will not automatically reinstate mandates if levels rise again, but it will look to evaluate the status of the health care system to determine any further mandates.

The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) has lamented for months that even with COVID numbers starting to come down, hospitals are also dealing with severe staff burnout, complications from patients being forced to delay care and difficult-to-discharge patients who don’t need hospital care anymore but are stuck in acute care beds due to red tape or staff shortages at other facilities.

While reducing COVID infections will help, WSHA continues to point to these issues as reasons hospitals continue to struggle to reach a sustainable patient load.

Inslee listed Thursday some ways the state has helped in these areas, explaining, “We've opened up dozens of new beds in our long-term care facilities on the state dime so that we can have a place for those people to go. We've put the National Guard into our hospitals. We have had a federal contract where we have brought in any number of nurses and professionals to help in our hospitals.”

However, just two days before Inslee’s announcement, Medical Director for Harborview Medical Center Dr. John Lynch warned residents his hospital is still filled with patients despite the declining number of cases and patients with COVID-19.

On Friday, WSHA CEO Cassie Sauer expressed gratitude for the state's help but added, “Even though the Governor is ending the mask mandate, we strongly encourage Washingtonians to continue wearing masks in indoor spaces. Hospitals remain very full and are challenged to care for both COVID patients and people with many other health conditions. We need the public’s help to prevent a COVID resurgence.”

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