A protective mask hanging on a front door. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

A protective mask hanging on a front door. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Health officials urge mask-wearing as viruses rise statewide

An “unprecedented surge in viral respiratory illnesses” spurred a joint statement from dozens of county medical leaders.

EVERETT — Mask up indoors again.

That is the recommendation of more than 30 medical officials in a joint announcement released Friday. Dr. James Lewis, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, joined the call for mask-wearing, along with 10 other public health officers representing 16 counties.

In the strongest warning issued yet this season, health officials said influenza, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and COVID-19 together are contributing to an “unprecedented surge in viral respiratory illnesses.”

“We recommend that everyone wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask when around others in indoor spaces to protect against both acquiring and spreading these infections to others,” according to the joint statement.

Children have been particularly impacted by this surge in respiratory illnesses, Lewis said in an email.

“I do recommend that schools and child cares encourage masking. However, this is not a requirement or a local mandate,” Lewis said.

The 11 health officers represent many of the biggest counties and metro areas in the state, including the Seattle-King, Tacoma-Pierce and Clark county health departments. With the exception of Kittitas, no Central and Eastern Washington county officials signed on.

They were joined by health care leaders from around the state, including Providence Swedish. Dr. Jay Cook, chief medical officer of Providence Regional Medical Everett, said the hospital system signed on “because masking is one of the most widely recognized ways to diminish the risk of transmission of respiratory viruses.”

He added that the Everett hospital has seen a big increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks, and continues to be challenged by staff shortages and non-acute patients waiting to be discharged to lower levels of care.

After mask-wearing, officials and leaders urged everyone eligible to get their flu and COVID vaccines to protect against severe illness.

As of this week, Snohomish County had already seen three flu deaths this season, and the percentage of hospital visits in the county for influenza-like illnesses is about 10 times higher than it was the previous two years this early in the season.

Notably, the state Department of Health did not sign the press release recommending mask-wearing. Its latest flu update recommends getting vaccinated, washing your hands, covering your cough and staying home when sick. Statewide, 26 people have died from the flu this season, three of them children. The state health department plans to host a press conference Tuesday to discuss masking.

A department spokesperson wrote, “We continue to recommend people wear masks in crowded settings around others, and that they keep a mask handy as a good way to navigate changing situations.”

Joy Borkholder is the health and wellness reporter for The Daily Herald. Her work is supported by the Health Reporting Initiative, which is sponsored in part by Premera Blue Cross. The Daily Herald maintains editorial control over content produced through this initiative.

Joy Borkholder: 425-339-3430; joy.borkholder@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jlbinvestigates.

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