There’s been a lot of news about the Delta variant and how its rapid spread has led to a surge in cases and hospitalizations. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) asked everyone, including vaccinated people, to wear masks in public indoor spaces, in areas with substantial or high transmission.
Here’s what these recommendations mean for Whatcom County.
We want to be clear with our community about the risks that we’re seeing right now. We are at the beginning of a surge in cases. After several weeks of declining numbers through June, cases in Whatcom County started to increase the first week of July. Whatcom County, along with most counties in our region, are in the CDC Substantial Transmission category, with Snohomish in the High Transmission category; all counties are increasing cases at about the same rate.
Delta cases in Whatcom took a big jump between last week’s state report (one case) and this week’s (11 cases). The reports on variants are results from specimens collected a month ago, and indicate what was circulating in June. We assume that Delta is widely circulating in Whatcom County at this time, given the rise in cases and the increasing proportion of cases due to the Delta variant.
Case numbers and rates will fluctuate. The CDC defines substantial risk of transmission as 7-day rolling average of daily case rates of 50-99.99 cases per 100,000 and/or test positivity rates between 5% and 9.99%. High risk is defined as 7-day rolling average of daily case rates of 100 or more cases per 100,000 and/or test positivity rates over 10%. CDC posts county-level COVID-19 data at https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view.
On July 28, the CDC moved Whatcom County from moderate risk to substantial risk, with an average daily rate increase of 57.58%. As we’ve seen several times during the pandemic, there will be fluctuations in case numbers. We may move in and out of different risk categories.
The best way to limit the spread of the coronavirus, including the Delta variant, is to get vaccinated. But it takes up to six weeks to get fully vaccinated depending on the vaccine you get. And this week, the CDC announced early data that suggest breakthrough Delta infections can be transmitted.
Wearing a Mask in Whatcom County
Masks provide some protection to the wearer from virus entering their mouth or nose (personal protection) and are even more important in stopping droplets that contain virus from being transmitted to others by the wearer. We were all hopeful that the virus had been contained to the point that we could stop wearing masks. Then the highly transmissible Delta variant emerged.
The reality is that public health has just a few tools to stop this virus, such as vaccination, social distancing, business and event closures, and masking. Masking and vaccination prevent transmission in a much less restrictive way than decreasing business occupancy/capacity or closures.
Wearing a mask in public indoor spaces is something that everyone can do to help. It’s a step we can take to head off or reduce the COVID surge that’s coming our way, hopefully enough that we can avoid more drastic measures such as restricting capacity at businesses. Whether Whatcom is an area with substantial transmission one day or moderate transmission the next, we can all decide to wear a mask to help stop the spread.
We remind you that unvaccinated people are required to wear masks in public indoor spaces. This is by order of the Washington State Secretary of Health. The Delta variant is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated people, and masking protects both you and the people around you from spreading the virus.
Because of the rise in Delta variant cases, and in light of CDC and DOH guidance, the Whatcom County Health Department advises that everyone wear masks when in public indoor places and in crowded outdoor public gatherings, regardless of vaccination status. This adds another layer of protection from becoming infected or transmitting to others if they are infected, and when everyone is wearing masks, businesses and organizations can ensure that unvaccinated persons are using masks without verifying vaccination records.
If we can stop the rise in infections by universal masking in the short run, and by increasing vaccination coverage in the long run, we might be able to avoid returning to more restrictive measures.