There is an important update to this story: the state expanded its indoor mask requirement on Aug. 23. Read about the new mask mandate here.
Washington state officials are joining national and local health experts in recommending that people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 once again wear masks in indoor public spaces.
The new guidance, announced Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee, is not a legal requirement that the state will seek to enforce.
Inslee said he is issuing the new guidance as COVID-19 vaccination rates lag across the state and infections are on the rise. He called what the state is experiencing a “fifth wave” of the virus.
“There is one way out of this pandemic, and that is more vaccinations,” Inslee said. “But until we get more people vaccinated we’ve got to be cautious, and that’s what we are being today.”
As of Wednesday, July 28, the requirements have not changed when it comes to wearing masks in schools. School employees and students are still required to mask up around one another. The school mask rule is not a recommendation, but a mandate that must be followed, Inslee said.
People who are unvaccinated also are still required to wear masks in indoor public spaces. Unlike the new guidance for vaccinated people, the order requiring the unvaccinated to wear masks in indoor spaces remains the same.
Washington state’s new mask recommendations come one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued similar recommendations for the whole country, and also follow new county recommendations on masking.
Why are vaccinated people being asked to mask?
State health officials said the rise of the new delta variant of COVID-19 is a key reason for the new recommendation for vaccinated people to wear masks. The delta variant is now the predominant strain of COVID-19 in the state.
Lacy Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy secretary of COVID-19 response, said the delta variant is roughly twice as transmissible as the first variation of the virus, which emerged in late 2019.
“That means each person who gets infected potentially goes on to infect twice as many people — that is a substantial increase,” Fehrenbach said.
As of Wednesday, nearly every county in Washington state — including King County — had high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rates, according to the CDC.
That's why vaccinated people in across the state are being asked to consider wearing masks inside places such as grocery stores, coffee shops, libraries and businesses.
Does the vaccine work against the virus variants?
Health officials noted that the vaccine is still highly effective at preventing hospitalizations from COVID-19. As of late July, 96% of COVID-10 hospitalizations in the state were among people who were not fully vaccinated, health officials said.
However, people who are vaccinated can still spread the virus, according to the latest information health officials are receiving.
That means people who are vaccinated, even if they are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, can spread the virus to others who are unvaccinated and more vulnerable to the virus’s effects. Those include children who are still not eligible to receive the vaccine.
What about young people and immunocompromised?
The desire to protect young people and others who cannot receive the vaccine, such as people who are immunocompromised, is a major driver of the new masking recommendations, said Dr. Umair Shah, the state’s secretary of health.
“We know that it’s important to protect our young ones, and we’re going to do everything we can to do that,” Shah said Wednesday.
That’s also why the rules for masking in schools are stricter. Unlike the case in other spaces, the state is requiring students and school employees to wear masks when around one another in school buildings. Compliance with the school mask mandates is not optional.
Where are vaccine rates lower in Washington?
In some counties, there are also much higher numbers of people who are unvaccinated.
While 79.1% of people 12 and over in King County are vaccinated, in Asotin and Garfield counties in eastern Washington, fewer than 40% have received the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health.
Those disparities in vaccination rates are another reason the state is asking vaccinated people to consider wearing masks when inside, Inslee said.
The county with the highest vaccination rate is San Juan County, where 81.4% of people 12 and over are vaccinated.
Does this mean other restrictions are on the way?
The governor has not halted Washington’s reopening. You can still eat in a restaurant or grab a beer at your local pub. You can do so without fear, if you’ve been vaccinated, state health officials said, At the end of June, Washington lifted most pandemic restrictions.
The governor said Wednesday that he doesn’t want to make indoor masking mandatory for vaccinated people at this time, partly because he wants to maintain some of the benefits people see in getting a vaccine. For many people, being able to stop wearing a mask is a strong incentive to get vaccinated, Inslee said.
Inslee said he also wants to avoid closing businesses again to prevent damaging the economy.
How can I get the vaccine?
People can find available vaccine appointments at the state Department of Health’s vaccine locator website. They can also call the state’s multilingual telephone hotline number at 800-525-0127.
As of July 14, 70% of Washingtonians age 16 and older had at least one shot of the COVID vaccine.
Updated to add information about community vaccination rates across the state.