OLYMPIA — With cases continuing to soar in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the return of a statewide indoor mask mandate in public settings, which goes back into effect next week.

Indoor mask-wearing will go into effect for everyone on Aug. 23, regardless of vaccination status, the governor announced at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. A mask mandate had previously still been in effect for people who were unvaccinated, but it is clear that unvaccinated individuals have been flouting the mandate locally throughout the summer.

Exceptions to the indoor masking requirement include office spaces that aren’t easily accessible to the public and where everyone in the space is vaccinated, vehicles with no face-to-face interaction, and small, private indoor gatherings where everyone is vaccinated. Individuals are also recommended — but not required — to wear masks in crowded outdoor settings, such as farmer’s markets, fairs and concerts.

The announcement comes as Washington, as well as Pacific County, is facing one of — if not its biggest — wave of covid-19 cases and hospitalizations since the pandemic began. From Aug. 12-18, 91 new cases of the virus were reported in the county, and the county's case rate stands at 697 per 100,000 people, up from 456 a week ago and the highest it’s been in 2021.

Another death due to complications from covid-19 was also reported by the county health department on Aug. 18. It’s the 17th covid-related death in Pacific County, and the third consecutive week a new death has been reported.

Hospitals in the Pacific Northwest are also being stretched to the limit, with Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria announcing last week that it was canceling elective surgeries amidst an expected surge in people being hospitalized by the coronavirus. In Pacific County, health officials said that some people hospitalized by the virus in recent weeks have been unable to be transferred to out-of-county hospitals to receive more specialized care because of a lack of staffed ICU beds.

Inslee’s announcement came after local health officials from all 35 health jurisdictions in Washington issued a joint statement last week recommending all residents — regardless of vaccination status — to wear a mask or facial covering in indoor public settings “where the vaccination status of those around you is unknown.”

Vaccine requirement for educators

Inslee also announced on Aug. 18 that statewide vaccine requirements have been expanded to include educators. He had announced earlier this month that vaccination was required for most state employees and private health care workers.

The requirement covers all K-12 employees in the state, including educators, school staff, bus drivers, coaches and volunteers at public, private and charter schools. It also affects employees at higher education institutions, such as colleges and universities, as well as most childcare and early learning centers.

The mandate includes exemptions for those with “legit medical reasons or sincerely held religious reasons.” Personal or philosophical exemptions are not allowed under the order.

“It has been a long pandemic, and our students and teachers have borne their own unique burdens throughout,” Inslee said on Wednesday. “This virus is increasingly impacting young people, and those under the age of 12 still can’t get the vaccine for themselves. We won’t gamble with the health of our children.”

Those affected by the order have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated, or face losing their job.

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