SEATTLE — Washington hospitals still advise residents to continue wearing face masks in most indoor settings even once the state mandate ends on March 12.
The recommendations came during a Tuesday briefing from the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA), a day after Gov. Jay Inslee said the state would lift its indoor mask mandate nine days earlier than he had initially announced.
WSHA Executive Director Taya Briley said the hospitals’ recommendation was for residents’ “protection and for the protection of our most vulnerable neighbors.”
“Until we have a few months of really low cases and things are more certain, we ask that this practice be continued in a pragmatic way,” she continued. “It’s an easy and it’s a compassionate thing to do for those in our community who are immunocompromised or have other health conditions that make them more vulnerable.”
The date change in lifting the mask mandate occurred due to the shift in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which said areas of low or medium transmission can safely not wear masks inside almost all indoor public spaces. In Washington state, 30 of its 39 counties fall under either low or medium transmission.
However, the lifting mask mandate statewide is concerning to hospital leaders, who say that they worry lifting the mandate will lead to an increase in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations at a time when hospitals are finally decompressing and getting to treat patients who have had to delay care amid the pandemic.
Dr. Santiago Neme, the medical director of UW Medical Center, said that the state should be prepared if cases escalate again.
“It's going to be something that we need to evaluate,” he said. “Things might change if we start seeing more cases or more hospitalizations or more people that are really sick.”
Meanwhile, most trends are positive in terms of declining COVID hospitalizations and cases. Neme said that across UW Medicine’s three campuses, there were only 24 COVID-positive patients as of Tuesday morning, only four of whom are in the ICU.
Briley said that last week’s average of COVID hospitalizations statewide was down 23% over the previous week.
Still, Neme said UW Medicine encourages everyone to keep wearing masks indoors in order to look out for not only their own health but the health of others.
“It's not only my risk. (It's) the risk of my community, and we need to address it with empathy and with the understanding that we have a pretty significant amount of folks who, although they've been vaccinated and boosted, they're still immunocompromised, and their response to the vaccine is not as robust,” he said.
Hospitals continue to deal with issues involving staff burnout, difficulty in discharging patients to other facilities and continued capacity issues due to patients being treated for delayed care.
“While waiting patients have often experienced a worsening of their condition or coming in sicker and this makes recovery more challenging. Hospital stays may be longer and the burden on staff and families to support recovery might be greater,” she explained.
Once the mask mandate is lifted on March 12, masks will still be required in hospitals, airports and on public transit per guidelines from the CDC.
State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah responded to WSHA's recommendation on Wednesday, saying, "March 12 or the end of March 11 really marks the end of the statewide requirement. It does not mean that local jurisdictions, local health officers or businesses or individuals may decide that they want to be more protective r more careful, that they want to wear masks as individuals or that a business or locality may decide that they want to require masks as they continue on."
Shah and other panelists at a Department of Health briefing said that the lifting mandate puts the responsibility of community protection on the individual while empowering everyone to make their own choice.
Additionally, Inslee said that the state will release further guidance for masking in schools by next week.