OLYMPIA — It was fun while it lasted.
About two months after the state eased mask requirements for vaccinated Washingtonians, Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday asked everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to consider masking up in crowded indoor settings like grocery stores, restaurants and retail shops.
“This is frustrating because we are past the point in this pandemic where the general public should have to deal with more restrictions,” Inslee said during a Wednesday news conference. “It is unfortunate we are in this position because we have the tools to beat this. But there are too many people who, although they have access to a free life-saving vaccine, have not availed themselves to that.”
His announcement comes amid a rise in COVID-19 activity, mostly among the unvaccinated, that health experts are calling the state’s fifth wave of transmission.
“Whatever you call it, these numbers are going up dramatically,” Inslee said.
The masking recommendation follows recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control. It is not a mandate.
Earlier this week, health officers from several Western Washington counties, including Snohomish, issued similar indoor masking recommendations as COVID cases continue to rise.
In Snohomish County, the two-week case rate has climbed to 139 infections per 100,000 residents — up from 70 per 100,000 a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations from COVID have nearly doubled countywide in that span.
Unlike previous waves, the state’s current disease activity is being dominated by the delta variant, which health experts said is twice as infectious as the original virus.
Currently, 96% of the active COVID-19 cases across Washington are from the delta variant, state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said. Weeks ago, it accounted for about 5%.
“What we’ve been seeing is every seven to 10 days, it appears to be doubling,” Shah said.
The best protection, health experts agree, is to get vaccinated.
Statewide, counties with the lowest vaccination rates have some of the highest levels of disease transmission, data show.
And 96% of all Washingtonians currently hospitalized due to COVID are not fully vaccinated, Inslee said.
“People who are unvaccinated right now are a danger to their fellow citizens,” he said.
Despite the guidance for masking, the risk for “breakthrough” cases — when vaccinated people acquire the disease — continues to be low, state Deputy Secretary of Health Lacey Fehrenbach said.
The state’s goal continues to be increasing the vaccination rate. Misinformation is the biggest obstacle, Inslee said.
Inslee and other state leaders hope a new program through which local doctors explain the benefits of vaccines to patients will help.
“We are trying to bust those myths that have been perpetrated on social media,” he said.
Additionally, the governor hinted, he could take steps in the next few weeks that will boost vaccinations. One possibility would be requiring state employees to get shots.
On Wednesday, Inslee also announced that, in the fall, students and staff returning to schools statewide must wear a mask. Unlike the mask recommendation, that order is a legal requirement that all districts must follow, he said.
“We must ensure we are taking every reasonable measure to make school safe for everyone, especially our students,” Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, said in a news release. “And as they return to school buildings we must strive to meet our students’ social, emotional, and physical needs with additional nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers to provide supports.”