SEATTLE (AP) — Despite recent guidance from federal and state officials, the top health official in Washington's most populous county urged people Thursday to keep wearing face masks in public, indoor settings.
King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin issued a directive strongly recommending that residents age 5 and up wear face coverings whether or not they are vaccinated until 70% or more of the county's residents 16 and older are fully inoculated. The agency projects the county will reach the threshold in late June.
About 57% of those residents in King County — home to Seattle — were fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to the directive. The county is home to about 2.26 million people.
The directive applies to public indoor spaces including grocery and retail stores, government buildings and anywhere else members of the public can enter freely — unless a state-approved method of checking vaccination status is implemented. It does not apply to outdoor places.
Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings and give up social distancing.
Gov. Jay Inslee later said Washington state would immediately adopt the new guidance from the CDC. Inslee also said businesses would retain the right to require customers to wear masks, and that, as the CDC said, masks would still be required in hospitals, schools, airplanes, prisons and on public transportation.
Duchin said Thursday he thinks there was uncharacteristically poor planning by the CDC regarding their rollout in communication of that guidance, which took him and many others by surprise.
“It has led to unnecessary and avoidable confusion and frustration,” he said.
With some people wondering why they should wear a mask inside if they're vaccinated, Duchin said it's because there's no easy way to know who is vaccinated and it's impractical for businesses to determine that.
“If unvaccinated people do not wear masks, the risk for COVID-19 spread increases," he said. "From a practical and community health perspective, the most reliable way to ensure everyone is safe is for everyone to wear a face mask in indoor public spaces for a few more weeks, until we get vaccination rates higher and disease rates lower.”
COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates in the county have been decreasing but are still at elevated levels that show the county is just turning the corner on a fourth wave of infection, officials said.
Duchin also said the county's relatively high rate of vaccination is not seen equally throughout the county's population, because the majority of vaccinated people are older adults. Vaccination rates for people of color and in certain geographic locations are lower, as well, and Duchin said without a mask mandate the virus will continue to spread in those communities.
King County, like all counties in the state, is in a reopening phase that allows businesses such as restaurants, bars and gyms to operate at 50% indoor capacity. Last week the governor said businesses can open fully once 70% or more of residents age 16 and up statewide have received at least one vaccine dose.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the city has had low virus death rates, cases and hospitalizations because it has relied on local public health experts and scientists.
"We know masking in indoor public spaces will continue to allow our community to have the highest level of protection,” she said.
There have been nearly 392,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases plus another nearly 33,000 probable cases in Washington state and 5,673 deaths since the pandemic began.