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WA to follow CDC's new mask recommendations as the Delta COVID variant continues to spread

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Photo by Michael Burrows / Pexels
Photo by Michael Burrows / Pexels

On July 27 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance for vaccinated individuals. A day later, Gov. Jay Inslee gave a press conference in support of the new recommendations. These updates came after an increase of coronavirus cases caused by the Delta variant, the most prominent variant of the virus, which is now circulating through our communities.

It is not abnormal for viruses to continuously mutate in order to find easier (and more destructive) ways to infect their hosts. The Delta variant, also classified as variant B.1.617.2, was first identified in India last year. What scientists and researchers know about it is that it is two to three times as transmissible as the Alpha variant that we saw back in March of 2020, and the effectiveness of vaccines for this specific variant is slightly lower than for the Alpha variant.

"Vaccinated people are transmitting it, and the extent is unclear, but there's no doubt they're transmitting it," said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The CDC has classified the Delta variant as a variant of concern (VOC) due to three factors: evidence of increased transmissibility, evidence of increased disease severity, and evidence of its impact on diagnostics, vaccines, and treatment.

Changes for those who are fully vaccinated
The CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people living in areas of high or substantial transmission risk wear masks in public indoor settings. Universal indoor mask wearing for all teachers, staff, and school visitors — regardless of vaccination status — is recommended in order to protect young children. (Full vaccination status is achieved two weeks following a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two weeks following the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.)

In addition, the CDC emphasized that fully vaccinated people who are immunocompromised or are living with someone who is at an increased risk for contracting the coronavirus may choose to continue to wear masks, regardless of transmission level in the community. It is suggested that those who have a weakened immune system speak with their healthcare providers in order to determine their potential reduced immune responses to the virus, and to follow current prevention measures, such as wearing a mask, maintaining six feet of distance, and avoiding poorly ventilated and crowded areas. Masking indoors is the most crucial prevention measure for those who are at an increased risk.

The CDC mentioned that only a small portion of fully vaccinated people contract the Delta variant, although breakthrough COVID cases still happen. It also stated that individuals should continue to follow applicable federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations.

What does this mean for Washington state?
On July 28, Gov. Inslee gave a press conference on the state's response to COVID-19, saying, "We will continue our safe practices of masking for our students and our young people, and we will ask people to consider masking in other conditions consistent with the CDC recommendations."

"We know the dominant variant today is the Delta variant," said Inslee. "It is twice as infectious. It is more likely to cause serious illness. And it is easily the most dangerous mutation to date of this virus. And we know that this curve is trending upward."

Inslee described how the Delta variant has slowed the state's progress in beating the virus, and brought up how there has been a dramatic increase in coronavirus cases over the last 14 days, in addition to there being a dramatic drop in vaccination rates across the state. Inslee mentioned that for the time being, hospitals are not overwhelmed by cases as they once were, but that they could very easily become strained again if we don't proceed with caution.

"We have the tools to beat this. We have the tools to break the back of this COVID pandemic, but there are too many people who, although they have access to a free, life-saving vaccine, have not availed themselves of that."

Inslee still plans to open schools this fall, but it will be a legal requirement that all students and employees wear face masks while in school, consistent with the updated CDC recommendations.

Unvaccinated individuals are at the greatest risk
Inslee described how the state has seen correlations between counties with low vaccination rates and high coronavirus infection rates.

Currently, the percentage of the population aged 12 and up that have initiated the vaccine in King County is 79.1%. San Juan County has the highest percentage, at 81.4%; Garfield County comes in with the lowest rate, at 31.7%.

One of the greatest struggles in getting Washingtonians vaccinated comes from misinformation, primarily. According to Inslee, a good portion of the misinformation is spread via social media, which has caused question about the vaccine. If one has questions or concerns about getting vaccinated, it is recommended to speak with a healthcare provider.

"We know everyone wants to save lives of the loved ones around them. So, this isn't just about your life; it's about the people around you," said Inslee after expressing the importance of getting a vaccine.

What can you do?
Kids under the age of 12 are still not yet eligible to receive a vaccine, which means a portion of our population, however strongly they may desire to get a vaccine, remain unprotected. Be thoughtful about indoor mask wearing and the benefits it may have, not only for yourself but for others in the same space.

If you have a friend or family member who has not yet received a vaccine, talk to them. Listen to their concerns and attempt to direct them toward their healthcare provider, because, as Inslee put it, "96% of all people in our hospitals today have one thing in common: they didn't get the vaccine."