Pandemic updates: King County Metro nixes mask requirement on buses
Updated news about the coronavirus pandemic in Seattle and Washington state.
As of Monday, April 25, 2022, the King County and Washington state departments of health report:
- Covid cases have risen 21% in King County over the last seven days, with a daily average of 701 new cases.
- Hospitalizations in King County have increased by 86% in the past week, with an average of eight people hospitalized each day.
- Covid deaths have declined by 19% over the past week in King County, with an average of one person dying each day.
- 84.9% of eligible King County residents are fully vaccinated; 72% of eligible Washingtonians have been fully vaccinated; 58.5% of eligible Washingtonians have received a booster shot.
- 1% death rate across Washington state since the beginning of the pandemic.
- 91 Covid cases per 100,000 people across Washington state.
MONDAY, APRIL 25
Pierce County business fined $56k over failure to enforce masking, leaving one employee dead
The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries fined a fish processing plant after the company failed to enforce indoor masking rules during a meeting last fall, leaving 16 people sick, including a person who died.
Shining Ocean Inc. has paid a $56,000 fine for allowing employees to go without masks during a Nov. 4, 2021 meeting attended by 23 people, despite state and local mask mandates being in effect at the time. The company did not have a vaccination verification process in place at the time, according to a press release published by the Department of Labor and Industries.
Officials say money collected from the fine will go into the state workers’ compensation supplemental pension fund for workers and the families of people who have died on the job.
Covid-19 cases continue to climb in King County
While Covid cases remain far lower than they were during the peak of the winter omicron surge, they’ve risen from an average of roughly 165 new cases per day in mid-March to 692 new cases per day.
As more people test at home, it’s harder to get a full picture of exactly how many new are emerging in the community.
But those that are recorded have reached levels that have pushed the county over the threshold into the CDC’s “medium” community levels category. However, officials say they're not ready to tighten Covid restrictions again.
“The CDC ‘medium’ risk category is not a magic threshold meaning the Covid-19 pandemic locally is suddenly or fundamentally different, or that we’re approaching a crisis level. But it does tell us that Covid-19 infection risk is increasing for individuals and for our community,” Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer with Public Health – Seattle & King County, said during a media briefing Monday.
The county was in the “low” community levels category for weeks as cases and hospitalizations declined sharply following the winter surge.
Duchin stressed that it’s important for community members to remember Covid is still present.
He said precautions can be taken to help lower risk, like staying up to date with all vaccines and boosters, wearing good quality and well-fitted masks, improving indoor air quality, and using rapid tests.
“We are in a much better place than we have been in the past couple of years during the early days of the outbreak with respect to the severe impacts, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Duchin said.
However, he said a lot remains to be learned about what’s known as "long Covid," and even a minor infection is worth avoiding.
Along with increasing cases, the county’s data dashboard on Monday appeared to show an increase in hospitalizations. However, Duchin said the current numbers may be inflated as staff are still going through the process of filtering cases from new admissions to weed out any cases where someone is admitted for an unrelated reason and happens to test positive for Covid while in hospital. He said Covid-19 hospitalizations have remained steady at low levels in recent weeks. Deaths in King County continue to decline.
Duchin said the county is not issuing new recommendations or restrictions at this time, citing a more steady rise in Covid cases than in previous waves, fewer hospitalizations, and an increase in the number of high-risk people who are vaccinated.
However, he said an increase in severe disease and hospitalizations could trigger the return of measures like indoor masking mandates in the future.
Covid-19 cases have been rising across Washington state, but hospitalizations statewide remain steady at low levels.
— Kate Walters
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 20
Covid cases are not the main metric experts are keeping an eye on
Covid-19 cases are up slightly across Washington state. The latest state data shows a seven day average of 926 new cases per day, up from an average of 440 new cases per day in mid-March.
However, case levels remain far below the peak seen during the winter surge. Health officials also noted during a press briefing Wednesday that hospitalizations remain steady at low levels, and deaths continue to fall.
As more people use at-home tests, it becomes a little less clear exactly how many positive cases are in the state.
But Dr. Scott Lindquist, the state epidemiologist, said Wednesday that focusing less on case numbers is part of the transition to living with Covid.
"The need to count every case is not realistic, nor is it going to be as useful as it was in the past,” Lindquist said.
He said more value lies in focusing on trends, hospitalizations, deaths, and other types of surveillance – like wastewater testing and genotyping – at this point in time.
If another, more severe variant emerges he said the strategy may shift. The bump in cases comes as restrictions continue to relax.
Following a ruling from a federal judge this week, masks are no longer mandated on public transit.
In the Puget Sound region that means masking is optional on buses, light rail and ferries.
But just because there is no longer a mandate, it doesn’t mean experts are encouraging people to take their masks off in those settings.
"We still recommend masks even though it's not mandated," Lindquist said.
He said he’ll continue masking on ferries, and in settings like grocery stores.
Health officials say staying up to date with vaccines and boosters remains important.
— Kate Walters
TUESDAY, APRIL 19
King County Metro nixes mask requirement on buses
King County Metro will no longer require masks on its buses in the wake of a decision by a federal judge that knocked down the federal mandate Monday.
According to an announcement Tuesday afternoon, Metro stated that it is still urging passengers to mask up, despite the absence of a mandate. The transit agency says that between 85-90% of its passengers have masked up during the pandemic. It has also distributed about eight million masks during this time.
Metro will continue to provide free masks on its buses through the end of June.
Metro's announcement Tuesday came with a statement from King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin, stressing the importance of continue mask wearing.
“We recommend wearing a high-quality (N95, KN95, KF94) well-fitting face mask in crowded indoor public spaces, including on metro buses and other public transit such as ride-shares. A high-quality mask can reduce your risk of infection, particularly in a settings with poor ventilation, and help prevent spread of Covid-19 to others who are not able to be vaccinated or at high risk for severe infections. This is especially important for people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated and people who are not up to date with their vaccinations, including booster doses. Cases continue to rise in King County. While we can’t predict whether or how much cases will continue to rise or when they may fall, we know preventing cases through layered prevention strategies, including wearing high quality masks, can help individuals stay safe and healthy and decrease the risk for long-Covid.”
— Dyer Oxley
Still masked up on flights to Canada and some other international destinations
Masks are now optional in the passenger terminal at Sea-Tac airport and domestic flights. Airlines made that decision after a Florida judge struck down the national mask mandate for airplanes.
But if you're flying to Canada or some other international destinations, you still need to mask up. A spokesperson for Air Canada told KUOW the airline and the Canadian government still require masks for the entirety of all flights.
"Throughout the pandemic, Air Canada has advocated for a science-based approach to ensure safety. At this time, we are seeing measures get safely lifted for other activities and in other countries, which is important given we operate to the U.S. and globally," the spokesperson said.
That mask rule also applies to other carriers with flights to and from Canada including Seattle-based Alaska airlines.
Alaska also tells KUOW that passengers will also be required to mask up upon arrival in Mexico and Costa Rica.
In addition, flights from the U.S. to some other counties including France and Germany will also require passengers to wear masks for now.
Local research takes aim at 'Long Covid'
While we're living in quite a different, mask-optional pandemic world these days, some folks continue living with a reminder of Covid.
Long Covid remains a factor for many people who became ill. Symptoms range from chronic fatigue to lingering loss of taste and smell, to cognitive ailments (brain fog). Researchers are still trying to figure out how long Covid works, and why it affects some people more than others. Sometimes it lasts weeks, and sometimes it lasts months.
UW Medicine and Swedish Health Services are providing local data to the National Institute of Health for a new long Covid study that will help answer some questions.
Seattle Times Reporter Elise Takahama tells KUOW's Seattle Now that "some of the recent data is showing that it has to do with a person's immune response system. So if they get sick and their bodies responded, they might be producing auto-antibodies and that is something that stays with them and continues to pose some problems within all parts of their body."
"Fortunately, there is a lot we have learned in the past two years," Takahama adds. "There are a lot of lifestyle changes that people can do that doctors are recommending. The biggest ones right now are changing the way you eat, your diet, improving sleep, and getting some very intentional physical activity ... things like stretching, yoga, or more aerobic activities can help a lot."
Listen to the full interview here.
— Dyer Oxley, Patricia Murphy, & Caroline Chamberlain Gomez
From airplanes to public transit, the masks come off
It didn't take long for a wave of updated mask policies to move across the U.S. after a federal judge threw out the national mask mandate for public transportation. This affects everything from airplanes to rideshares like Uber.
But while a range of transportation providers are dropping their requirements, many are still urging passengers mask up as a personal choice.
Washington State Ferries is the latest local provider to announced an updated mask policy, making them optional.
The Associated Press reports that King County Metro is still requiring masks, for now, while they wait to see if the ruling will be appealed.
Kitsap Transit told KUOW Tuesday morning that masks are now optional on its services. Masks are also optional on Pierce Transit.
Sound Transit is keeping its masking signage up on its trains, but a spokesperson tells KUOW that the agency will no longer be enforcing the mask rule.
Amtrak also dropping the mask requirement on its trains.
Alaska Airlines now says that masks are optional aboard its domestic flights, but they are still required on international trips, such as flights to and from Canada.
Delta Air Lines is also nixing its mask rule, stating "effective immediately, masks are optional for all airport employees, crew members and customers inside U.S. airports and on board all aircraft domestically, as well as on most international flights."
Masks are now also optional inside Sea-Tac Airport, however, the airport is reminding travelers that the CDC is still recommending that people wear masks inside transportation hubs.
Uber now says riders and drivers are no longer required to wear masks. As of Tuesday morning, Lyft has not updated its mask requirements.
— Angela King
King County health officer criticizes mask ruling
King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin is criticizing a federal judge's decision to throw out the mask mandate for public transportation. Dr. Duchin argues that the decision is not based on any "public health need."
Covid cases in King County have continued a gradual rise in recent weeks. Cases rose 16% over the past week alone. The county now has a daily average of 550 new cases.
Hospitalizations and deaths from Covid continue to decline, however.
— Angela King
Sea-Tac travelers react to going maskless
People flying out of Sea-Tac Airport are reacting differently to Monday's decision by a federal judge to throw out the federal mask mandate for public transportation.
Amanda Emory says she may still wear her mask in certain situations.
"I just joked with a gentleman that if you're sitting next to someone who is coughing up a lung you might chose to put it on, but if you're in an open space, and the doors are open and you're feeling safe, you have the opportunity not to do so," Emory said.
Emory's travel partner Lisa Nelson said she is glad that she can now fly maskless.
"Hopefully, we won't have to fear getting arrested if we (don't) have the masks on, or getting tackled and thrown off of plane," Nelson said.
Tommy Hunter was in midflight, coming into Sea-Tac, when the news was announced that the mask mandate had been struck down in court.
"There was cheering, and what was really interesting was that the flight attendants all gathered up in the front of the plane and hugged and cried," Hunter said. "It's been a hard two years for them having to manage people in that whole situation."
While carriers like Seattle-based Alaska Airlines say masks will be optional on domestic flights, passengers still need to wear a mask on international flights, such as trips to and from Canada.
— Angela King
Covid-19 vaccine won’t be required for school kids in Washington state
The Washington state Board of Health voted unanimously Wednesday against adding the Covid-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations for kids in schools and childcare settings in the state.
The board was not debating the safety and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine for children but deciding whether it should be required for school and childcare entry.
The state already requires multiple vaccines for kids to protect against things like Polio, Measles, and Hepatitis B. An exemption process is available for parents who don't want their children to be vaccinated.
In February, a technical advisory group voted narrowly against recommending the Covid-19 vaccine be added to the list of required shots.
In voting to follow that recommendation Wednesday, board members raised concerns about potential unintended consequences of a requirement, like children missing school if they’re unvaccinated and out of compliance.
“If we look at equitable access to vaccinations, the concern that this may drive many parents away from educational opportunities in Washington state, the fact that it may further push parents away from ensuring that their children are adequately vaccinated, I think we have to be very considerate of that,” said board member Dr. Bob Lutz.
Other board members expressed concern around implementation, and additional resources schools would need to adequately implement a mandate.
Read more here.
— Kate Walters
Covid cases rise steadily in Seattle, King County
Covid cases have risen slowly but steadily in King County over the past month, as masking and vaccination requirements have tailed off. But local health officials say the worst of the omicron variant-driven surge is over.
Cases of omicron peaked in early January, when the county saw an average of 6,500 new infections each day. Currently, a daily average of nearly 500 new cases are emerging in King County. However, officials say the current data is likely an undercount, as home Covid tests have become more prevalent and positive results are underreported.
Most of those new cases are among adults ages 18 to 35, followed by adults ages 30 to 49. Infection rates are lowest among children and adults 65 and over. County officials say most of the new cases are popping up in Seattle and east King County.
Hospitalizations are also on the rise in King County, although they remain comparatively low to the number of hospitalizations during the winter omicron surge. Approximately five King County residents are being hospitalized with Covid each day, with people 65 and older and the unvaccinated making up the majority of those cases.
— Liz Brazile
Covid-19 cases in King County have roughly doubled since mid-March
While the number of Covid cases in King County have nearly doubled since mid-March, it's still far fewer than what the region saw over the winter omicron surge. Hospitalizations remain low, right now.
King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin, says people should pay attention to the numbers and keep taking precautions, especially as folks get ready to gather outdoors, for Easter on April 17.
"There are things we can do to protect one another and we should do," Dr. Duchin said. "And so all of these organizations should be paying careful attention to indoor air quality to decrease the risk of Covid transmission in their spaces."
Dr. Duchin further says people should also stay up to date on vaccines and boosters, use rapid tests, and consider masking.
Gathering for long periods indoors can increase transmission and exposure, especially when people are singing or sharing meals together.
— Kate Walters