The delta variant of the coronavirus got off to a slower start in Washington compared to other states, but it has recently bullied its way to the front of the variant pack here.
The emergence of delta coincides with what some public health officials are calling a “fifth wave” of COVID-19 infections that is tearing through the state’s unvaccinated population.
The state Department of Health’s (DOH) latest sequencing and variants report has delta making up 57.5% of cases that have been genotyped. A big increase from the previous report that had delta at 27.5%. Gov. Jay Inslee and state health officials said Wednesday disease modeling shows delta likely now accounts for more than 90% of new cases.
Another report from DOH released Wednesday makes clear the pandemic is far from finished. Between February and June, Washingtonians 12 and older who are unvaccinated made up 97% of COVID-19 cases, 96% of hospitalizations and 94% of deaths.
As of Wednesday, just 52.4% of Washington residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
As delta was just beginning to emerge, many states and counties experienced cases, hospitalizations and deaths trending in the right direction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rescinded its masking guidance in May. Washington followed on June 29.
Now, the numbers and wellness of many are going in the wrong direction. This week’s FAQ Friday answers questions about the delta variant and the masking recommendations and mandates that have returned in response to increasing cases.
Why is the delta variant fueling a fifth wave of infection?
The delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, how it works and its effects are still being studied by scientists. A series of mutations has made delta more transmissible, giving it an advantage.
A Chinese study published earlier this month found people hit with delta carried about 1,000 times more virus in their respiratory tracts compared to the original virus that emerged in China.
On Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky referenced new data that showed vaccinated people who are infected carry as much viral load as someone who is unvaccinated and infected.
She added that CDC scientists still believe that breakthrough infections are rare and don’t account for significant transmission.
Why have mask recommendations and mandates returned?
The CDC’s findings and surging case counts across the country were enough for the agency to do an about-face on masking. On Tuesday, the CDC issued guidance recommending the vaccinated should join the unvaccinated in wearing masks in indoor public spaces in areas of the nation where cases are quickly piling up.
The CDC also now recommends masks be worn by all teachers, school staff and students in schools whether vaccinated or not.
Public Health – Seattle & King County’s health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin came to the same conclusion last week and recommended everyone should wear masks in indoor spaces. Health officers from seven other Western Washington counties did the same on Monday.
When announcing the recommendation, Duchin said widespread masking is needed because people are doing more outside their homes and taking fewer precautions.
“For this reason, universal masking in public indoor spaces provides a more reliable way to ensure everyone is safe as we monitor the increasing disease trends,” he said.
Inslee followed suit Wednesday and recommended the same and made clear there is still a masking mandate for teachers, students and staff for schools across the state no matter their vaccination status.
Local mask recommendations won’t be enough because the virus doesn’t respect government boundaries, said Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious disease expert and associate professor of medicine and public health at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“The simplest and clearest recommendation is to have a state-wide mandate for indoor masks and to keep this in place until we have substantially lower levels of viral transmission,” Chu said. “This will reduce confusion and make it simpler to message and for businesses to implement.”