Healthcare facilities may soon implement mask wearing as respiratory viruses spread

As respiratory illnesses begin to spread in western Washington, health officials are turning back to COVID-type precautions to clamp down on airborne infection.

Local health departments are monitoring transmission rates of influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

"I want to emphasize staying home if you’re experiencing symptoms of a viral respiratory illness is key," said Dr. Dimyana Abdelmalek, health officer at Thurston County Public Health.

RSV has similar symptoms of a common cold like coughing, runny nose, fever, and sore throat. Doctors said this virus can be life-threatening for babies and older adults who have chronic health conditions. 

"We often come into contact with folks in our lives, family, friends, loved ones, who may be at a higher risk of disease from a viral respiratory illness," said Abdelmalek. "Stay home when you’re sick."

Health departments in King, Skagit, Snohomish and Thurston counties are experiencing RSV cases above the transmission alert threshold. Abdelmalek explained the threshold is determined by the percent of emergency department visits that confirm a respiratory virus diagnosis.

"Once it passes that threshold, we’re almost certainly going to see an increase, or at least the sustained increased level of transmission, of that particular pathogen," said Dr. James Lewis, health officer at Snohomish County Public Health.

Health departments in Snohomish and Skagit counties are advising people to be prepared for masking at health care facilities.

"It’s a recommendation that Public Health agrees with. The healthcare organizations really instituted and put it upon themselves and then put out publicly that they’ve agreed to institute this as an internal policy," explained Lewis.

The health officers said the best defense against any respiratory virus, including flu and COVID-19, is to get vaccinated.

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Lewis said masking will offer additional protection, and estimates people in the North Sound should expect to see healthcare facilities implement mask recommendations in about a week or so. 

"It’s for not just patient safety, but also healthcare worker safety and the stability of our healthcare system, because we’re seeing a lot of folks still having to call out from illness in healthcare settings. We want to reduce transmission to healthcare workers as much as possible, as well to try and preserve our healthcare workforce," said Lewis.

The respiratory virus season is just beginning. Officials at local health departments reported flu cases were low at this time. However, they said they are seeing more COVID-19 cases, though the transmission rate has not reached the threshold just yet.