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Officials recommend universal masking in indoor public spaces for most Washington counties

The new guidance is in line with the CDC's recent reversal for counties with "high" and "substantial" transmission risk for COVID-19.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday that the state is recommending residents wear masks in indoor public spaces regardless of vaccination status in counties where COVID-19 transmission levels are surging, which includes most of the state.

This is in line with Tuesday’s guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommending that even fully vaccinated people should go back to wearing masks indoors to help prevent the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. 

This new guidance is a recommendation and will not be enforced or part of any compliance requirement, according to Inslee.

Inslee was joined by Washington's Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah.

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This comes weeks after Washington state fully reopened, dropping most pandemic restrictions.

The latest guidance on masks in indoor public places applies in parts of the country with "high" and "substantial" case rates, which equals between 50-100 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week. That includes 60% of U.S. counties, officials said, including some in western Washington. You can view the CDC map of the country here.

Inslee addressed the epidemiological curve for the state, suggesting that Washington is seeing a "fifth wave" of the pandemic due to the delta variant.

“We know the dominant variant today is the delta variant, it is twice as infectious, it is more likely to cause serious illness and it is easily the most dangerous mutation to date of this virus. And we know it is trending upward," Inslee said.

Inslee expressed his disappointment at feeling the need to issue this recommendation but said that his office sees only one way out of the pandemic which is more vaccinations.

While King County squeaks in just over that mark at 53 cases on average, or the low end of substantial, Snohomish County rates high at 120 cases, and Spokane County much higher at almost 260.

Earlier this week, eight Washington counties, including King, Pierce and Snohomish, signed a joint statement recommending that people return to wearing masks indoors, even if they are fully vaccinated.

Inslee said that he is not making the state's new masking recommendation a requirement because he doesn’t want to take away the benefit of numerous residents who got the COVID-19 vaccine so that they wouldn’t have to continue wearing masks.

The state will also likely be more successful in raising the state's vaccination rate, Inslee said, teasing some more incentives in the coming weeks without offering additional details. 

Inslee also said the state is battling two viruses: COVID-19 and misinformation surrounding the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. "That's a bunch of hogwash," said Inslee, "We all have to pull on the rope... you can't fight a battle when 30% of your population won't help." 

He also said that the COVID-19 vaccine may become required similar to the measles and mumps vaccines for children, but that the state is hoping to avoid that.

"I do not want to shut down a single business in the state of Washington. That's painful for everybody," Inslee said. "I want people to enjoy freedom of their lives. And I'm doing everything I can to preserve freedom in their lives by getting people vaccinated."

The state is also reaffirming its existing school guidance for the upcoming school year requiring that all students and employees wear masks around one another indoors regardless of vaccination status.

This requirement is in line with the CDC's guidance, as well.

The delta variant poses a greater risk to younger people, according to health officials, including those under 12 years old and ineligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. 

This is a legal requirement statewide and not up to local jurisdictions, Inslee said.

The state hopes these guidelines will minimize transmission of the virus among students, families and the broader community as well as maximize in-person instruction.