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Washington's mask requirements may be revisited in the 'near future'

Washingtonians may hear soon whether they'll have to leave their masks on in indoor spaces for much longer.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — With Oregon and California set to lift mask mandates in indoor public places, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office is being asked when the Evergreen State could see relaxed masking rules.

In a brief statement Monday, Inslee said state officials are tracking cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. 

"We are optimistic that these numbers will continue to decline in a way that will let us revisit the mask requirements in the near future," the statement reads.

Oregon state officials announced Monday that most indoor mask requirements are set to lift by March 31 at the latest. Health officials will consider lifting the mandate for indoor public spaces earlier if COVID-related hospitalizations decline to projected levels earlier than expected. K-12 schools would continue to adhere to the mandate through March 31 to give districts planning time.

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The mask mandate in Oregon will remain in place in healthcare settings. Once the rules lift, businesses may still require masks for staff or customers. That also applied to school districts. 

Oregon State Health Officer and epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said it is unlikely the state will enforce a masking requirement in the future because of the availability of vaccines and boosters. 

Meanwhile, in California, the state is lifting its indoor mask requirement for vaccinated people on Feb. 15. It will remain in place for unvaccinated people and for schoolchildren.

In Washington, a statewide indoor mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status, has been in place since Aug. 23, 2021. In September, an outdoor mask mandate was put in place for events with 500 or more people. The mandates were put in place as COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations increased during the rise of the delta and omicron variants. 

Recently, however, the state began seeing a downward turn in cases in western Washington. The state’s seven-day average of positive cases went from its peak of about 18,800 cases on Jan. 14 to nearly 2,000 fewer cases just four days later on Jan. 18. 

When looking at King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, the three most populated counties in western Washington, the downswing is even greater, with the peak occurring on Jan. 10 with a seven-day average of 11,095 cases to over 2,000 fewer cases roughly one week later.

Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in an interview with KING 5 on Tuesday that he would support making masks optional in schools to let families decide.

“It's time to make that next transition in this pandemic,” Reykdal said.

Reykdal pointed to additional strategies to fight the spread of COVID-19, including vaccination, as a crucial turning point.

“The downside of wearing masks – whether it's speech therapy or learning or that social interaction, the frustration or all the discipline of teachers asking kids to put them up or the community frustration – those variables didn’t counter the health benefits in the beginning but now with vaccination those variables become more important,” Reykdal said.

Reykdal said there has been a steady call throughout the pandemic from school districts to remove the mask mandate, but now schools are able to point to high vaccination and low case rates as reasons why it makes sense.

Hospital officials are cautioning against lifting the mask mandate in schools. 

Dr. Shaquita Bell, senior medical director for Odess Brown Children's Clinic, said Tuesday during a Washington State Hospital Association briefing that she personally feels it is too soon to allow students to not wear masks. However, she added, there should accommodations for children whose learning outcomes are affected by wearing masks or who struggle with remote learning. 

“Personally, I think it’s too soon. We still have over 100 people per 100,000 people having COVID every day, so I think it’s too soon at this point in this surge," Bell said. "I do encourage us as a state and as an educational system to continue to be able to be flexible and make decisions based on the numbers."

According to DOH data, nearly 80% of the state’s eligible population has received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine as of Jan. 31, and just over 72% is fully vaccinated.

For the total population, just over 72% has initiated vaccination while about 66% is fully vaccinated.

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