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As COVID policies loosen, health officials urge caution

There’s promising news: Hospitalizations have remained down in the state and Snohomish County.

OLYMPIA — State health experts urge people to keep wearing masks in public even as they’re no longer federally or locally required on buses, ferries, planes and trains.

Transit agencies across the Puget Sound region, including Everett Transit and Community Transit, announced Tuesday they’ve ended mask mandates for passengers.

It is a “new era of this pandemic,” said Kathleen Custer, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 1576, the union that represents Community Transit drivers. She said the union has been frustrated by the agency’s apparent refusal to assist drivers with mask enforcement.

“We hope the public makes good choices in keeping everyone safe by wearing a mask in those confined areas such as the bus, and we continue to pray for the health and safety of all our members and the public,” Custer said in an email.

In a briefing Wednesday, state Department of Health officials said despite a slight increase in COVID-19 cases, the flat rate for hospitalizations means they’re not alarmed yet. In Snohomish County, there were 783 confirmed cases this week. That’s up from the previous week’s 572, according to local health officials.

“We’re really watching hospitalizations,” Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said. “The most important thing for us is health care capacity.”

The number of people being hospitalized with COVID infections has been “markedly less” than during the peak of omicron cases earlier this year, Shah said. Similarly, deaths from COVID are not rising statewide.

On Tuesday, Snohomish County had 28 COVID-positive hospital patients, with two of those on ventilators, according to county data.

State health officials credit vaccinations and the apparent mildness of the BA.2 variant for the decreasing number of illnesses that need a hospital stay.

Though masks are no longer mandatory on public transit, health officials urge people to keep wearing them and stick with many of the other precautions used over the past two years, such as social distancing, testing and isolation when experiencing symptoms.

“We know that masks work, we know that all these other strategies work,” Shah said.

Guidelines were going to change from pandemic response to “learning to live with COVID,” state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said.

“This is the transition we expected,” he said.

The state is using wastewater to monitor for outbreaks to supplement data as mass testing sites wind down and home testing, which relies on self-reporting for statewide data, becomes more common.

Ben Watanabe: bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.

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