Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced today intends to lift the state’s indoor mask mandate on Monday, March 21.
“We are … experiencing a significant decline in cases in the state that will allow us, in the upcoming weeks, to take further steps forward in regaining a more normal life in the state of Washington,” Inslee said during a remote press conference on Thursday, Feb. 17.
Inslee said state leaders had arrived at the March 21 date for lifting mask mandates in most indoor spaces, including retail shops and schools but excluding many health care and correctional facilities as well as public transportation, which is still covered by a federal mask mandate to help lower COVID transmissions on buses, planes, subways and trains.
“We know this has been a long, long journey. And we know there are people who would want to say it’s totally over today,” Inslee said of the COVID pandemic, which is still considered to be at high levels of transmission in most areas of the state. “But that is not consistent with where the science is today. It’s not safe to (lift the mask mandate) today.”
The governor said he is confident Washington will be able to remove the mask mandate on March 21, and be able to keep transmission rates low enough to avoid straining the state’s hospital systems.
“Our goal is to reduce infection rates low enough that hospitals are not jammed with COVID patients,” Inslee said. “There is a hint of caution, though, as the hospitalization rate today is higher than at any time in the pandemic other than those in the past couple weeks. It’s still extremely high and continues to put pressures on our hospitals and continues to take lives in our state. We know we have a journey to get these numbers down.”
The most recent projections and data show that the rate of COVID infections will be low enough by the third week in March to lift the mask mandate without posing a risk to the hospitals, Inslee added.
The governor said individual business owners will still be able to impose mask requirements and stressed that some people – including teachers and students – may still feel more comfortable wearing masks to protect themselves against the deadly virus.
“People will be able to make individual decisions about masks after March 21,” Inslee said. “You will be able, should you desire, to wear a mask in your place of business or anywhere else. That will be part of our order. Students or teachers will be able to wear a mask and we will protect that right. We know our schools will do a good job in protecting those students who want to wear a mask and those who do not … and will not allow them to be bullied.”
The state also plans to remove its vaccine verification requirement for large events as of March 1, Inslee said. The governor already ordered the mask mandate for large, outdoor events in the state to end this week on Friday, Feb. 18.
The governor added that vaccines still provide strong protection against severe cases of COVID, and urged all eligible Washingtonians to get vaccinated – and boosted – against the virus.
“If you are not vaccinated, you have a 16 times more likely chance to be hospitalized by COVID,” Inslee said, showing a chart of hospitalizations for the disease among those fully vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated. “These vaccines work big time.”
Inslee and other state public health officials said Thursday that the pandemic will “still be with us” after March 21, and urged all Washingtonians to continue to take steps to protect themselves and their loved ones from being infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
“No human being can tell you where the end of COVID is,” Inslee said. “It appears it will be with us for some period of time, and we’ll have to learn to live with this disease. … COVID is not going to disappear … but we still have mechanisms to protect ourselves. Get vaccinated. Get the booster.”
Some people may still be required to wear a mask inside a certain business or facility after March 21, the governor added.
“We are removing the state mandate for masks, but we will not remove the ability for businesses or other entities to make their own independent decision to ask people to wear a mask,” Inslee said.
World Health Organization officials urge caution over ‘return to normal’
On Wednesday, Feb. 16, the World Health Organization urged officials around the world to be cautious about lifting all COVID mitigations too soon and said COVID deaths are still on the rise across the globe despite data showing fewer COVID cases.
“We need to be careful about interpreting too much this downward trend. The bigger concern is the increasing number of deaths,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said during a Wednesday question and answer session on COVID. “It’s the sixth week in a row that we’re seeing increasing reports of deaths.”
Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, said the number of COVID deaths is close to its highest-ever levels.
“When we look at the overall global situation, we had … 75,000 deaths last week. Our highest ever was 110,000 deaths, which we considered the most awful week in the pandemic,” Ryan said. “We’re at 75,000, so it’s not too far from there. In five of the six WHO regions, deaths increased last week … it could be that the deaths we’re seeing now are a lag from a few weeks ago, but the other explanation is that testing rates have dropped off remarkably in many countries.”
Ryan urged people to remain committed to using COVID mitigations – including getting vaccinated and wearing masks indoors when local transmission rates are high – even if mandates have been lifted in their regions.
“In my case, I’m very comfortable to continue wearing a mask,” Ryan said. “Each and every person needs to say, ‘I really don’t want to get infected, so how can I reduce those risks even if the government says it’s not mandatory anymore?’”
Ryan added that WHO officials understand the desire to “return to normal” after two years of a pandemic.
“We recognize this desire to go back to normal, but we need to think about that,” Ryan said. “There is political pressure to overreact and open all things, but we may be overshooting the runway. I’m a bit nervous right now that we’re just lifting everything. If we get hit with another variant and have already abandoned all measures, it’s going to be really hard … This idea that we’re just going to abandon everything is really premature in many countries right now.”
Van Kerkhove added that WHO officials also are concerned about the emergence of other variants – including the BA.2 omicron subvariant known as “stealth omicron.”
“When we have huge cases like we are seeing, the opportunity for variants is even higher, which is concerning to us,” Van Kerkhove said.
Ryan added that people should not give up hope that we will get through this pandemic and return to normal someday.
“Science has triumphed,” Ryan said, listing the many treatments, vaccines and interventions that can help prevent and treat COVID today that weren’t available in 2020. “We know this virus better than probably any virus in history. We’ve demonstrated human intellect can triumph. … And I do see us getting out of this. We need to reach a point where ordinary people can get on with their lives. But we may have to sustain a higher level of vigilance longer than we expected. We may have to wear a mask for longer than we expected. We may need to keep windows open for longer than we expected.”
Van Kerkhove added that people have tools to avoid having a severe case of COVID through vaccines that have “been through rigorous testing,” and tools to avoid getting COVID in the first place.
“Masks work. We know masks work. Not just a piece of fabric – although that’s a barrier – we would like to see three-layer masks that have certain filtration,” Van Kerkhove said. “Clean your hands. That is one of the ways that is important to prevent the spread of pathogens. Keep distance from others. Avoid crowded spaces. Ventilate the rooms you are in. These are things that can reduce the amount of virus around you.”