Washington, Oregon to lift mask mandate as COVID-19 activity falls

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Washington, Oregon mask mandates lift Saturday as COVID-19 activity falls

Starting Saturday, customers will no longer have to mask up inside stores, restaurants and most other indoor public spaces, as the state lifts its mandate amid falling COVID-19 cases.

While it is unclear if or when virus activity may increase to a level that calls for renewed masking, vaccinations and the most recent surge in cases have lowered overall risk, at least in the short term, said Dr. Steve Krager, Cowlitz County deputy health officer.

“We’ll probably see little spikes in case rates, but even if that happens with the level of population immunity we have, the chances of significant impact on the health-care system is lower,” he said.

State officials cited falling case and hospitalization rates, improving vaccination rates and access to testing as reasons to loosen restrictions.

On Feb. 28, Gov. Jay Inslee moved the end of the mandate from March 21 up to Saturday to align with the end of the requirements in Oregon and California.

People still will need to mask up in health-care settings, including hospitals, clinics, dental offices; and in congregate settings like long-term care and correctional facilities.

Federal officials are extending the mask requirement for planes and public transportation through April 18, giving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention time to develop new, more targeted policies, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

Businesses and local governments can choose to implement mask or vaccination requirements for workers or customers. Cowlitz County and local city governments don’t plan to set their own mandates outside the state requirement.

School districts also can choose to have students and staff wear masks, but that’s not the plan for Cowlitz County or Rainier schools, except for when required by the updated state rules.

Some people may decide to continue masking, especially if they are at higher risk from COVID-19, Krager said. The updated CDC guidance also offers recommendations on when residents should mask up, he said.

The CDC’s risk levels are based on the seven-day case rate, new COVID-19 hospitalization rate and the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by virus patients.

The agency recommends everyone in high-risk counties wear a mask indoors and those at high risk of severe disease should do so while in medium risk counties. As of Friday, 29 Washington counties, including Cowlitz, were low risk, nine were medium risk and one was high risk.

Washington’s case and hospitalization rates have fallen significantly since January but may be starting to flatten.

Cowlitz County’s downward trend may also be slowing, but cases have reached the lowest level since early July. The county recorded 65.2 new cases per 100,000 people from Feb. 24 to March 2.

The county had about 8 new hospitalizations per 100,000 from Feb. 24 to March 2. PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center had four COVID-19 patients as of Friday morning.

Recommendations and requirements may change if circumstances change, but a huge surge in cases at least in the next couple months is unlikely, Krager said.

“We’re very much in a transition period,” he said. “It’s understandable to be uncertain about things that are changing. People got used to wearing masks and having quarantine protocols in place but it doesn’t make sense to maintain them forever. We need to pick a cut off eventually, exactly what the rate or … perfect set of circumstances is, no one knows for sure.”

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