SEATTLE — King County’s health officer is once again recommending all people above the age of five wear masks in indoor public settings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Jeff Duchin made the recommendation Friday during a media update on COVID-19 trends saying it was “an extra layer of protection to help us all stay safer.”
“I know this is frustrating and disappointing to many,” said Duchin. “It certainly is to me. I didn’t want to be in this position. And I acknowledge that the changing communication on masking has been a real problem nationally."
The announcement comes three weeks after King County dropped its masking directive and the county passed the 70% threshold of fully vaccinated residents. Like many states, Washington has "fully reopened," dropping most pandemic restrictions on gatherings and businesses.
Since the end of June, King County has followed Washington state’s masking guidance, which says people who are not fully vaccinated must continue wearing masks in indoor settings, but everyone should mask up in high-risk crowded areas, like medical facilities, public transit and schools. Fully vaccinated people are allowed to forgo masks in many public situations.
But testing is showing increased proportions of variants.
In King County, the 'variants of concern' make up 90% of sequenced cases, with 60% of that being the more infectious delta variant. With that in mind, Duchin was prompted to encourage even vaccinated people to mask up again when indoors.
At a state level, the delta variant is showing up in 58% of all sequenced cases, though that's just a fraction of the total positive tests that are sent for sequencing. For that reason, it's a bit uncertain if that can be extrapolated to represent all cases statewide, Department of Health officials said.
COVID-19 case rates are increasing in King County, and Duchin said that’s fueled by variants. Daily case counts have increased to 141 -- a 130% increase since the end of June.
About 700,000 people remain unvaccinated in King County, in addition to thousands of people who are immunocompromised and may not fully respond to vaccines, according to Duchin.
“What this means are there are plenty of susceptible people that are vulnerable to a COVID-19 surge driven by the delta virus,” said Duchin.
Duchin argued the delta variant increases risk for everyone, but masking would help reduce risk. Health officials say there have been cases of vaccinated people being infected after indoor activity in poor ventilation without masks.
Duchin cited a recent model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) that says universal masking in Washington could prevent 840-1300 deaths in the state by Nov. 1 if it started next week. This chart shows the departure from other predictions, with masks in purple.
During a separate briefing Friday, Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington State Department of Health acting chief science officer, said universal masking “is exactly what we are discussing right now,” but added that “Washington state isn’t all King County” and he feels comfortable with local health officials making their own masking decisions at this time.
“There are some counties that really have not had cases,” explained Lindquist. “So, that seems a bit extreme for those local health officers and their elected officials. So, you know, where we’re at now is I’m comfortable with the local ability to be more stringent than the state.”
Still, he said to "stay tuned," because things could change. He also expressed concern for some counties with low vaccination rates. In King County over the last month, 94% of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated.
Lindquist also reminded the public that unvaccinated Washingtonians are still required to wear a mask in public.
“Don’t forget, the state still has a requirement, so not a recommendation, but a requirement for masking if you’re not vaccinated,” he said. “So, that doesn’t change.”