Olympic Peninsula health officers worry about mask directive

Those who are fully vaccinated have been assured by federal and state authorities that they can safely refrain from wearing masks in many indoor settings.

In response, some retailers, including Walmart, have dropped their requirement that customers wear masks. Employees who want to go maskless must prove they have been fully vaccinated, but how do the retailers know the status of the customers?

They don’t.

And that is the problem with the directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to county health officers on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Both Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer, and Dr. Allison Berry, Clallam County health officer, expressed concern last week about the new masking advice from the CDC.

They didn’t object to the science behind the decision — that’s solid — but rather about the inability to verify that a person has been vaccinated.

“Right now, we’re going on the honor system,” Berry said Friday during her weekly update.

That’s why Locke is sticking to his masking mandate for indoors, although he emphasizes those who are outdoors can safely go maskless.

The mask mandate has been in effect in Jefferson County since before the state required them. Clallam County does not have one.

Unmasked outdoor gatherings for vaccinated and unvaccinated residents are fine, although unvaccinated residents should continue to pay attention to social distancing, Locke added.

Unvaccinated, unmasked individuals face a one-in-1,000 chance of contracting the virus outdoors, he said.

But if unmasked, unvaccinated people start mixing indoors, “what could have been this great disease-free summer will become a battle against the virus,” he said.

Fully immunized people can have good reasons to continue wearing masks, Locke said.

The vaccines work well for fully immunized people, even if they encounter the virus. But there have been breakthrough cases — Jefferson County has had five — and although such cases are usually mild, those who are immunocompromised could be at risk of complications.

“Vaccines only work extremely well when you have a healthy immune system,” he said.

Among the reasons for wearing a mask even if fully vaccinated are having had an organ transplant, having a medical condition that puts one at greater risk for complications, or taking care against bringing the virus home to a cancer survivor or unvaccinated children.

The CDC’s new guidance that Gov. Jay Inslee adopted Thursday calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings such as buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.

Businesses and local public health districts can still enforce mask-wearing if they choose, Inslee said.

Walmart Inc. has announced that fully vaccinated customers need not wear masks and that fully vaccinated employees do not need one beginning this Tuesday in stores in areas where there is no mask mandate. Customers are on the honor system while employees must prove they have been fully vaccinated.

Costco also dropped the requirement Friday for fully vaccinated members, except in health care departments. Proof of vaccination is not required.

Locke worried the directive places an undue burden upon businesses to determine who is vaccinated and who isn’t. It also could create situations where people who might not otherwise have been exposed contract the virus, he said, as he praised retailers who are keeping mask guidelines in place.

“We need to keep wearing masks until nobody needs to wear a mask,” he said.

Berry texted Sunday that the number of confirmed cases had increased by two since Saturday. That brought the total since Thursday to nine and the total since the pandemic began to 1,314. She provided no other information on Sunday.

On Saturday, she said three people were being hospitalized, down from five as of Friday, when four were in a critical care unit. Their ages ranged from the 30s to 60s.

Locke said Jefferson County had an increase of one coronavirus case to 412 as of Friday and no new cases by Sunday afternoon.

Jefferson County is in the moderate-risk category and Clallam is in the high-risk category.

No one was being hospitalized in Jefferson County as of Saturday.

Clinics this week in Clallam County are:

• Schools, for all who are 12 or older — Stevens Middle School, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday, offering Pzifer vaccine; Sunday, Sequim High School, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., offering second dose of Pfizer vaccine.

• Drop-in — First Steps Family Support, 1-5 p.m. Thursday, offering Moderna and Johnson & Johnson; Downtown Port Angeles (on Front Street, where skating rink was earlier this year), 1-5 p.m. Sunday, Moderna and the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

• Public health offices, by appointment only — Port Angeles Public Health office, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday; Forks Public Health Office, 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Thursday.

• Mass clinic, second dose, by appointment only — Port Angeles High School, 9 a.m. to noon, Pfizer.

Clinics this week in Jefferson County include:

• Jefferson Healthcare, by appointment only — A drive-through clinic 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday for anyone 12 and older, first-shot Pfizer vaccine. To make an appointment, go to jeffersonhealthcare.org/covid-19-vaccine.

• Saturday, Chimacum High School — 9 a.m.-noon, second dose Moderna; 1-2:30 p.m. Johnson & Johnson where appointments are recommended and walk-ins will be accepted. Call 360-344-9791 or visit prepmod.doh.wa.gov//appointment/en/reg/5092606201.