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Washington ends masking requirements at health care, correctional facilities

FILE – A sign that reads “Face masks required prior to entry." (FILE/SBG){p}{/p}
FILE – A sign that reads “Face masks required prior to entry." (FILE/SBG)

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Masks are no longer required in health care, long-term care and correctional facilities in Washington state.

The decision to end the universal masking requirement in certain settings on April 3 aligns with other states, including Oregon. The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) said last month that cases of COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus and influenza have “continued to decline since the end of last year.”

Some regional health care facilities across the Puget Sound region committed, in a joint statement, to continue to require masking in acute and outpatient clinic settings in advance of the removal of the Secretary of Health mask order on April 3.

UW Medicine supports the joint consensus statement and is one of the signatures among other healthcare institutions, which includes Public Health-Seattle & King County (Public Health) and six other public health districts.

RELATED | Several King County health care facilities to continue mask requirements

“The commitment of healthcare and public health leaders to work together and collaborate on strategies and solutions to support patient care across the region has been the cornerstone of our health and medical response," Executive Director of Northwest Healthcare Response Network Onora Lien said in the statement. "The development of this consensus statement and recommitment among healthcare leaders to continue masking in healthcare facilities exemplifies the strength of our partnerships, the power of the ongoing collaboration across the region, and exemplifies the dedication to continuing to protect the health and safety of patients, staff and the most vulnerable in our communities.”

CDC data shows both cases and deaths overall are trending down, but the latest weekly new case data gives insight into the pandemic hold. In the United States, as of March 22, weekly new cases totaled 133,521, weekly deaths totaled 2,060, and hospitalization admissions at 2,445, both for the same weekly time period.

While the universal masking requirements ended Monday, the DOH said masks are still recommended for patients, health care providers and visitors in health care settings. Licensed health care facilities are also still required to have infection prevention policies consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, according to the DOH.

“Masks have been – and will continue to be – an important tool, along with vaccinations, to keep people healthy and safe,” said Umair Shah, MD, MPH, Secretary of Health. “We are thankful for our health and long-term care providers, staff members, patients, and all Washingtonians, for following the important public health measures put in place during the pandemic to protect one another.”

The DOH said some worker protection requirements enforced by the Department of Labor & Industries will remain in effect, including that employees and contractors can choose “to use facemasks or other personal protective equipment on the job without employer retaliation.”

Other worker protections will also remain in effect until the federal pandemic response declaration ends on May 11, the DOH said. Tribal or local governments, facilities and health care providers may choose to continue masking requirements after the order is lifted, the DOH said.

Every person KOMO News spoke to outside area hospitals said they had no idea the state requirements changed today. One woman said she told her doctor who didn't know.

For Susan Ledger Edwards it came as an absolute shock and disappointment. "I think it's very dangerous for vulnerable people and we can't get more vulnerable people than people in hospitals," she said.

Ledger Edwards is thinking of her beloved sister, Karen, who has been battling late stage breast cancer for the last seven years. "She's wonderful, she's a fighter," said Ledger Edwards, “I hope that hospitals will voluntarily continue to enforce wearing masks."

Her sister is a patient in the UW Medicine system where Dr. Mani said their staff will continue to require patients, visitors, and staff to wear masks inside their medical facilities including their clinics for now.

Mani said the bigger challenge may came in June, when their staff reassess whether to continue masking.

"When the public health emergency, the federal emergency ends on May 11th we will lose some of the epidemiological data that we have been relying on to determine community transmission and community levels of circulating of SARS-COV2," said Mani, "We will need over the next three months to determine what metrics we might be using to assess community transmission levels." She suspect some of that data may come from hospital admission surveillance testing for COVID-19.

11 healthcare systems in our region have agreed to continue some form of masking, but not all those requirements are the same.

"Whenever we enter these transition points there is always potential for confusion," Mani said. She insisted it's up to each facility to communicate with their patients and visitors.

While UW Medicine and Seattle Children's will continue with their masking policies, for Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue and its clinics, as of today, masking is optional in common or public areas, but masks are required in other area such as exam and procedure rooms.

As of April 3, UW Medicine has 46 COVID inpatients systemwide.

The Department of Health (DOH) COVID-19 dashboard latest data shows 34 average weekly deaths, with 50 the week before. The peak for 2023 was in early January, with an average of 435 weekly COVID deaths.

"It should be up to anyone if they want to wear a mask or not," said Robert Weber. His seven year old son Drayson is being treated at Seattle's Children for a rare condition. "He's doing well, we go home tomorrow."

Weber said because children are so vulnerable, he's actually glad Seattle's Children's is keeping their masking mandate in place.

"It's about time we get rid of these things but for the Children's hospitals, inside a hospital, they could keep their policy, there is nothing wrong with that," Weber said.

Dr. Mani said the state lifting the universal masking requirement left her "a little surprised," but she thinks so many people have become accustomed to wearing masking in patient setting that it's hard to imagine taking them off right away.

"It is a challenge when many of us are no longer masking in the community and other settings it is a challenge to enforce," said Mani.

For Ledger Edwards, who is trying to doing everything she can to help her sister beat breast cancer, knowing masking will continue at UW Medicine means one less thing to worry about it.

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"I'm a retired teacher and I hated teaching in a mask, but you do what you have to do to protect the people you love," she said.

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