Thurston County Health Officer Answers Questions About COVID-19 Masking Directive

Submitted by Thurston County

May 29, 2020: Letter to Community

Things have changed. Mostly for the better. Thurston County has been approved to move to Phase 2 of the Governor’s Safe Start Recovery Plan, and we are on the road to being able to do some of the things we’ve been missing. I continue to be proud of the excellent job our residents and businesses are doing to protect themselves and one another.

I thought we were doing better! What’s up with the masking directive, Dr. Yu?

I know my masking directive came as a surprise to many of you. As the health officer, appointed by the Thurston County Board of Health, I do have the authority under Washington State law to require the use of face coverings. To be clear, I have the authority to enforce this directive by law. HOWEVER, I believe our limited resources are more effective elsewhere, and I am choosing not to enforce. Having said that, I REALLY WANT you to take this seriously. This change is not only to protect our health, but also to protect our path forward as a county. We need your help. Without due caution, this virus will surge, and I know none of us want that to happen. Please wear a face covering when you might be within 6 feet of anyone who is not a household member.

But do we really need it?

We are in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic. Although Thurston County has not experienced the large number of cases and deaths other areas in our state have, we are experiencing local community transmission. Since the beginning of April, I have publicly advocated for using a face covering (mask) to protect others. Wear it when you are in public and cannot avoid being within 6 feet of someone else. In addition to washing our hands, staying home when sick, and social distancing, these are the measures we can control to keep our community protected from exposure to COVID-19.

If it’s so important, why didn’t we have a directive before? 

I hesitated to make face coverings mandatory because (1) we do not have the resources to make the directive enforceable; (2) there are members of our community who are not able to safely wear a face covering for various reasons; (3) we do not have the resources to provide a face covering for everyone who wants one; and (4) we want to make sure medical grade masks remains available to our first responders and medical workers who need them.

There ARE some who are not able to wear face coverings for health reasons. These people are exempt from the directive:

  1. Any child aged three years or less;
  2. Any child aged 4-12 years unless parents and caregivers supervise the use of face coverings by children to avoid misuse;
  3. Any individual who has any type of disability that prevents them from comfortably wearing or removing a face covering;
  4. Any individual who is deaf and uses facial and mouth movements as part of communication;
  5. Any individual who has been advised by a medical, legal, or behavioral health professional that wearing a face covering may pose a risk to that individual; and,
  6. Any individual who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the face covering without assistance.

Why now?

My observation since early May is only a few people are wearing face coverings out in public. In addition, not enough people are social distancing. This week we received approval to move into Phase 2 because we met all the requirements. Over the 3-day holiday weekend, we received 8 positive reports (likely from exposure after Mother’s Day and when weather was good). We had 0 reported cases for the seven days prior. Yesterday, we experienced our first long term care facility outbreak. Over the next few days, we will have more reported cases because of exposures to the current cases. All of these factors influenced my decision to go ahead with masking directive after discussion with county and department management.

To be clear, I have been using the word ‘should’ for the last 6 weeks and people are ignoring the advice. I want our community to understand the importance of face coverings at this time when our weather has changed and people are beginning to loosen their own restrictions in time with the loosening of the state restrictions. The mother in me chose to use the word ‘must’ because I care about peoples’ health and I DO want you to wear one if you are able to.

Wait, there’s an outbreak in a long term care facility?

There is an outbreak in two facilities. We anticipate there will be more cases soon. We are working with the facilities for outbreak control, as well as doing the appropriate contact tracing. While we hoped to avoid cases in long term facilities, it does not come as a shock to have an outbreak, and we are prepared to do what is needed. Family members have been notified by the facility and we will continue to be involved in the situation.

Isn’t there any good news?

There is, actually. We are in Phase 2. CONGRATULATIONS!! If people take my directive seriously, and if we are diligent, we should be eligible to apply to move into phase 3 in about 3 weeks. I do not know if we will continue to meet the criteria to move towards recovery as fast as we want, but I remain hopeful. It is up to all of us! To remain eligible for our population, we cannot have more than 29 cases during a 14-day span.

Your public health service providers at the county, and throughout all our facilities are working hard…and we are all tired. Like you, we want our lives to get back to normal. What that will mean in a post-COVID world remains to be seen. I know that there are vocal members of our community who do not want to mask, in addition to some people who cannot mask. I ask you to assume a position of compassion if you see someone without a mask. Please assume they know what they’re doing and are not masked for a reason. Please be responsible for yourself and your family.

While there will be no enforcement, places of business are within their rights to impose a no mask, no service rule. It is their private business. Wearing a face covering is protective of others. Remember, people can be contagious with COVID-19 for two days before onset of symptoms until a week or more after.

Please continue to share the prevention messages. WASH YOUR HANDS! STAY HOME WHEN YOU ARE SICK! COVER YOUR COUGH! STAY AT LEAST 6 FEET AWAY FROM OTHERS! WEAR A CLOTH FACE COVERING WHEN YOU CANNOT STAY 6 FEET AWAY.

Please review our masking FAQs for more information. Thank you for everything you’re doing to protect yourselves and our community.

Diana T. YU, MD, MSPH

Acting Health Officer, Thurston County

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