EVERETT — Masks are required again.
Starting Thursday, all Snohomish County residents 5 and older, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a mask in public indoor spaces, like grocery stores, retail shops and gyms, under a new directive from Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters.
In late July, Spitters issued an indoor masking recommendation. Now it’s a requirement.
“We want to remove any ambiguity as to what the desired action is, that’s that we all wear a mask in public settings,” Spitters said during a media briefing Tuesday. “It’s good for people’s health and it’s good for businesses in the long run.”
Spitters’ order does not apply to private indoor spaces like office buildings with little public interaction, or outdoor settings. And the health district won’t be enforcing it.
For weeks, Spitters and other public health experts across the state have begged people, especially the unvaccinated, to wear masks when indoors, as case rates reach alarming levels.
“One of my greatest concerns is our collective exhaustion with this pandemic,” Spitters said. “It’s exhausting, and we all want it to be over, but it’s not.”
The county’s latest two-week case count recorded 279 new infections per 100,000 people. Weeks ago, it was 80 per 100,000.
And hospitalizations continue to rise, causing health experts to worry whether the medical system can handle the current wave.
As of Tuesday, 62 people were in county hospitals due to COVID-19, Spitters said. On July 24, there were 22 hospitalized COVID patients.
To make matters worse, local hospitals are seeing a non-COVID surge in patients, partially because people are catching up on medical care they put off during the earlier months of the pandemic.
Those factors combined have intensive care units operating above 90% capacity, leaving little room for new patients.
Fortunately, Spitters said, the county hasn’t seen an increase in the number of weekly COVID deaths. However, such a rise would usually occur a few weeks after a jump in hospitalizations.
Wearing masks is the fastest way to stunt what is now a fifth wave of the disease, he added.
He cited a study from the University of Washington that found universal masking would reduce the number of COVID deaths between now and December by 1,500, including 150 in Snohomish County.
“It’s in our hands,” Spitters said. “We can bend this curve, as we’ve done before.”
The best long-term protection, he added, is getting a shot.
In July, case rates and hospitalizations for vaccinated Snohomish County residents were one-tenth of those for the unvaccinated, he said.
“But only 54% of the total county population has completed vaccination and is benefiting from that,” Spitters said. That figure includes children 12 and under who are ineligible.
On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced requirements for state employees and staff at long-term care homes to get vaccinated.
Additionally, Providence, which operates several hospitals, including one in Everett, is requiring all employees to get vaccinated and show proof of vaccination by Sept. 30. Those unable to be vaccinated will face new protocols, such as enhanced COVID testing.
In Snohomish County, Executive Dave Somers said he’s considering a similar vaccine requirement for county employees, but no decision has been made.