Dr. Chris Spitters (Snohomish Health District)

Dr. Chris Spitters (Snohomish Health District)

Not a mandate, but a ‘call to action’ for return of masks

As hospitalizations surge, Snohomish County health officials recommend people wear masks indoors and in crowds.

EVERETT — Health officials are asking, but not requiring, Snohomish County residents to don their masks once again as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations bounce back. A 130% increase in new cases this week pushed the county into a medium-risk category, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s metrics.

On Tuesday, the Snohomish Health District recommended people mask up indoors and in crowds. There are no new mandates.

“It’s a call to action,” Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters told reporters. “I think this is a time to be grateful for the good stretch we’ve had since February or so, but it’s time to kind of raise our guard again.”

Last week, the health district documented 2,819 new cases. That’s more than what the county saw at the peak of the Delta wave last fall.

“More concerning than the case rate,” Spitters said, “is the fact that we’ve seen the rate of new hospital admissions for COVID more than double in the past several weeks.”

As of Monday, 35 people were in local hospitals with the virus. That represents about 5% of hospital beds here. At the peak of the Omicron surge, about 35% of beds were occupied by COVID patients, pushing staff to their limits and sparking a nurse exodus. The state paused non-emergency surgeries and deployed the Washington National Guard to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

Now it’s time to “heed the early warnings” before the county is in another crisis, Spitters said.

Hospitals are again reporting signs of stress, officials said. Cases and outbreaks in local long-term care settings are on the rise.

“If we continue to see hospitalizations increase, we’ll find ourselves in the high-risk level, with yet another surge burdening a short-staffed and exhausted health care system and compromising access to in-patient and out-patient care for all,” Spitters said.

The state lifted the mask mandate less than two months ago, churning both excitement and anxiety in Snohomish County. At the same time, state and federal officials signaled a new, more optimistic phase of the pandemic.

It makes the reintroduction of masks a hard pill to swallow for some, Spitters acknowledged Tuesday.

“There’s many things we have to do in life over and over again. Whether it’s paying taxes or getting our teeth cleaned or responding to another surge in COVID,” he said. “So I think we’re all capable of it.”

At least three other counties are in the CDC’s medium-risk category, including neighboring King County. On Tuesday, the agency’s dashboard was still showing Snohomish County in the low-risk category. That’s due to a data lag, Spitters said. The dashboard didn’t show any counties in the high-risk category across Washington or most of the country.

Spitters said it’s too early to estimate when cases may peak. Officials have signaled that vaccination rates and recently acquired immunity will help tamp down any new waves. But Spitters also emphasized that only 55% of fully vaccinated county residents have gotten a booster shot.

“This is a reminder that although we may be in a new phase of the pandemic,” he said, “we’re not rid of COVID.”

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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