COVID-19 trends give leaders confidence to look towards next phase of pandemic response
With dropping hospitalization rates, improving vaccination rates, and broad access to masks and tests, Gov. Jay Inslee today announced the state can soon move into a less restrictive phase of the COVID-19 response. The lifting of statewide measures does not prohibit local governments from the ability to enact measures in response to COVID-19 activity in their communities.
“The virus has changed significantly over the past two years, and so has our ability to fight it. While caution is still needed, we are entering a new phase of the pandemic,” Inslee said at today’s press conference.
Inslee and leaders from the state Department of Health said the combination of dropping COVID-19 hospitalization rates and efficacy of vaccines in preventing severe illness and hospitalization are important indicators that statewide requirements can begin to loosen.
“Vaccination remains our most essential protection against severe illness and death from COVID-19. It’s also crucial to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed again,” Inslee said. “If you’ve been procrastinating, now is the time to get the shot.”
Masks no longer required in most places beginning March 21
Beginning March 21, face masks will no longer be required in most settings, including K-12 schools and childcare facilities.
Masks will still be required in health care settings such as hospitals, outpatient and dental offices, long term care settings, and correctional facilities.
In addition, beginning March 1, vaccine verification for large events will no longer be required.
Businesses and local governments can still choose to implement vaccination or face mask requirements for workers or customers, and school districts can still choose to have students and teachers wear masks. Federal law still requires face masks in certain settings such as public transportation and school buses.
Guidance for K-12 schools will be updated
The week of March 7, DOH will issue updated guidance for K-12 schools to go into effect March 21. The guidance will be released early to help schools prepare for this transition.
Schools will still be required to report COVID-19 cases and outbreaks, and cooperate with public health authorities in responding to these consistent with procedures for other communicable diseases.
Students and staff with symptoms of COVID-19 will continue to be required to quarantine away from school buildings. Schools must also ensure access to testing for staff and students who have symptoms of or who may have been exposed to COVID-19. If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, they must remain at home and follow the CDC and DOH isolation protocol.
DOH will also shift existing requirements regarding distancing, ventilation, and sanitation so they become recommendations.
Until Monday, March 21, the K-12 Schools Requirements 2021–2022 remain in effect.
“Our students, educators and school employees, and families have been incredibly resilient as we’ve navigated the impacts of the pandemic,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. “Our efforts over the past two years have led us to this moment. Nearly all of our school employees are vaccinated, the number of vaccinated students increases each day, and we have one of the most robust COVID-19 school testing programs in the country. Moving away from a statewide mask mandate to masks being encouraged is a safe next step as we move from pandemic to endemic.”
Safe workplace protocols remain in place
COVID-19 remains a recognized workplace hazard. When masks are no longer required in the workplace, employers must continue taking steps to assess COVID-19 transmission risks to employees and taking steps to minimize those risks. Risks vary depending on the work space and conditions. Possible steps could include promoting vaccination, improving ventilation, offering face masks, encouraging social distancing or installing sneeze guards or barriers.
Employers are still required to notify workers of potential exposures when a co-worker has a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. In worksites with 50 or more employees, report outbreaks of 10 or more confirmed cases to the state Department of Labor & Industries.
Employers must also allow workers to continue to wear masks if they choose. In 2021, the Legislature passed SSB 5254, which protects a worker’s right to wear a face covering and other protective devices during a public health emergency. The governor is amending an existing worker safety and protection emergency order, Proclamation 21–08, to reflect this new state law. Proclamation 21–08 already prohibits employers from taking adverse action against a worker for taking COVID-related health actions, including getting vaccinated and taking time off to get vaccinated or seek treatment, and it will now also protect workers from any adverse action for wearing a face covering while we remain in a state of emergency.
“Caution, compassion and kindness is what will allow us to move forward, together”
While the transition to the next phase of the pandemic is reason for hope, Inslee emphasized many families and individuals will continue taking precautions such as wearing face masks at school and work.
“People fall all along the spectrum when it comes to feeling safe and ready to be in public spaces,” Inslee said. “And here’s the hard truth: while we have the tools we need to fight back, COVID-19 is still a danger to many people. I encourage people to continue doing what’s necessary to keep themselves, their families, or their workers safe. Caution, compassion and kindness is what will allow us to move forward, together.”