As the indoor mask mandate lifts statewide and in King County March 12, many families will be making personal decisions about indoor mask use. It’s important to note that school districts and child care settings can choose to have students, teachers, and visitors wear masks even after the statewide mandate lifts.
Although masking is no longer required by the State or County, layered prevention measures in schools and child cares are important ways to reduce the risk of transmission, and families can continue to mask based on their personal preferences. Within the school setting, this includes vaccination of staff, improving indoor air quality through ventilation and use of portable HEPA filters, ensuring access to testing, and supporting staff and students to stay home when sick. And one of the most important ways to reduce risk for the entire school community is through high rates of community vaccination.
For settings where masks are optional, here’s what we know about COVID-19 risk factors that may help you decide what’s best for your family right now.
Summary of why mask mandates are lifting
First, let’s review the rationale that led to lifting the indoor mask requirement in King County.
King County is at a low level of COVID-19 transmission based on CDC’s framework. Disease rates have declined across geographies and racial/ethnic groups. COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths are also low and trending downwards. In addition to immunity from King County’s high community vaccination level, the recent Omicron surge likely has resulted in some additional immunity for at least the short-term among the many young children who were infected. We will continue to monitor COVID-19 rates in children and adults and consider whether mask guidance needs to be revised in the future if our situation changes.
“The overall risk from COVID-19 in King County continues to decrease with the waning Omicron surge and increasing vaccination coverage,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer, Public Health – Seattle & King County. “However, we need to be aware that COVID-19 is still circulating and risk of severe outcomes is higher for those who are immunocompromised, unvaccinated, and those that haven’t received a booster if eligible.”
“For people at increased risk and anyone who chooses to further reduce their personal risk for any reason, continuing to wear a mask in indoor settings at this time is very reasonable and should be supported. And, keeping masks on-hand will be important for use in crowded or poorly ventilated indoor settings if we experience increased transmission or surges.”
Considerations for families as they make decisions about masking
Risks for individuals and communities differ depending on several factors. The American Academy of Pediatrics has published a statement that can help families make decisions about masking.
Here are some tips for making these decisions with your families:
Have an open conversation with your child and support them as they talk about their perspectives about wearing masks. Dr. Mark Del Beccaro, a pediatrician and Public Health’s Strategic Lead for COVID-19 vaccination shares some questions that may be helpful to ask your child:
- How does it feel to see other kids with or without a mask?
- What has been helpful or hard about wearing masks?
- How can you respond to peer pressure?
- What can we all do to prevent bullying about masks?
COVID-19 has had disproportionate impacts for some communities. Decisions to remove masks for many families that have experienced more direct loss due to COVID-19 or are experiencing the continued economic and other hardships are different than those who haven’t. Some may choose to continue to mask to protect others who are at higher risk. Acknowledging these inequities and supporting communities is something we can all do during this time of transition.
Assess the health risks within your family including whether your child or family members are immunocompromised or have conditions that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 disease. A conversation with your child’s pediatrician or your health care provider may help assess the risk. If you don’t have a provider, Public Health’s access and outreach program (1-800-756-5437) can help connect you to medical providers and health insurance options.
Vaccination and boosting when eligible are some of the most important ways to protect against severe impacts from COVID-19. The COVID-19 vaccine is currently not approved for those under five. What we know from the data is that severe outcomes from COVID-19 are less likely for this younger age group, but parents may also want to consider the impacts to family members if a child gets COVID-19, such as time off work to care for a child. Families of kids who are unvaccinated are balancing these risks with the benefits of children no longer masking. It’s not always an easy decision, one way for all of us to support families who have children in this age group is to get vaccinated ourselves, which can provide a more protective environment for them.
What masks are best if others around me aren’t masking?
Masks work best when everyone is wearing them, but they do provide protection even when others aren’t wearing a mask.
N95, KN95, or KF94 masks provide the best protection. Just recently, several brands of KN95 masks for children have come on the market. These masks offer a high level of filtration and a snug fit on smaller faces. When considering masks for kids, they need the best fitting mask they can wear comfortably all day. Project N95 is one source for child masks. Parents should look for the same qualities in kids’ masks that they do in adult masks: good fit and good filtration.
Layered protection will continue to be important, including getting vaccinated and boosted when eligible, improving indoor air quality through ventilation and filtration, staying home when sick, and getting tested if exposed. Public Health will continue to monitor disease trends and will advise on mask use accordingly.
Originally published March 10, 2022