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As transmission rates and case counts of COVID-19 rise steadily throughout the United States, the Kittitas County Public Health Department is recommending both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals resume masking while in indoor public areas.

“Kittitas County has a high level of community transmission, and everyone should consider wearing a mask while indoors regardless of vaccine status,” a KCPHD press release said on the recommendation. “Since early July, Kittitas County’s COVID-19 caseload has been increasing and the increase is continuing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone should mask indoors in areas with high levels of transmission.”

The release reiterated that vaccines are still considered highly effective, and that the CDC recommendation applies to high transmission areas.

“When individuals are around a lot of people with more disease present, there is a higher chance that someone who is fully vaccinated will still get sick (also called vaccine breakthrough),” the release said. “Masking is an extra defense step to protect individuals in addition to the vaccine.”

The release cited Washington State Department of Health’s figures which show 42.3% of the population in Kittitas County is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, saying high levels of individuals who are vaccinated decrease transmission rates and that vaccines also lessen the severity of a disease, even with vaccine breakthrough.

UPWARD TRENDS

“Deaths follow hospitalizations, and hospitalizations follow cases. What we are seeing here is increases of cases, but not yet increased hospitalization and thankfully not yet deaths,” Kittitas County Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson said of current disease trends within the county.

Larson said COVID-19 case counts have risen within the county over the last five days, with 11 new cases reported Thursday from Kittitas Valley Healthcare, which is a change from typical single-digit reporting from KVH.

“Usually it’s in the two, three, four range,” he said. “Over the weekend, we had numbers of five, seven, and four from the hospital. They don’t sound like very much, but it’s essentially doubling our cases over the last two to three weeks.”

Over the last few days, Larson said there has been one hospitalization, an unvaccinated male in his mid-50’s. In an effort to track the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, Larson said the state puts out sequencing data on a weekly basis which is gathered from a random test sample of the population. On June 26, the sequencing was showing the variant to comprise 41.6% of sampled positive cases within the state. Flash forward to July 10, where the same sequencing was coming in at 75.9%. As of Wednesday, Larson said six cases of the variant have been detected within Kittitas County.

“We’re definitely having an increase in Delta,” he said.

PROACTIVE MEASURES

On Wednesday, the Washington State Department of Health released updated guidance for the upcoming 2021-22 school year, which included a mandate for all K-12 students, personnel, volunteers, and visitors must wear cloth face coverings while indoors and on school buses. The mandate also requires three feet of social distancing between students in classroom settings, to the degree possible and reasonable that allows for full-time and in-person learning for all students.

“The goal of these layered prevention strategies is to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, staff, and their families from COVID-19 infections,” DOH Deputy Secretary Lacy Fehrenbach said in a press release regarding the mandate. “Outbreaks can and have occurred in K-12 schools. These measures limit transmission in schools, which will minimize the disruptions of quarantines and classroom or school closures caused by outbreaks. It is important we do everything we can to keep our classrooms safe, students and staff healthy, and schools open.”

In recent conversations with local school district administrators, Larson said school board members showed interest in not masking, a situation he advised them wouldn’t be likely. Given the new mandate, he said there is little to no wiggle room on the subject.

“With increased numbers of cases and with increasing Delta variant percentage and its increased transmissibility, that’s the reason the governor made the decision to mandate masking in schools, regardless of whether people are vaccinated or not,” he said. “I think it was really the only decision that could be made by the governor, and it is a mandate, so it is a law, not a recommendation.”

Outside the classrooms, Larson said it is entirely possible that local businesses, both corporate and locally owned could reinstate mask rules within their locations, as well as the possibility of government buildings doing the same if the upward trend increases going into fall.

“Right now, it’s still up to people to make a choice to put a mask on in an indoor facility,” he said. “If we find that we cannot control our current surge in Kittitas County, I could see where there could be a mandate for masking in public buildings. Certainly, independent businesses could put their signs up and say masks are mandatory in their facility to protect their employees.”

In the meantime, Larson said the clear solution to move forward instead of backward in the fight against COVID is to increase vaccination rates within Kittitas County.

“It’s still an individual choice,” he said. “We will continue to find ways to raise peoples concerns about vaccination and address them in a caring and non-judgmental way.”

Levels of community transmission within Kittitas County, as well as all others can be found at https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!

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