Don Stookey spent a small part of his Memorial Day weekend watching people head into two Yakima County businesses and checking if they were wearing cloth face coverings.

He wasn’t the only one. Several dozen volunteers helped count how many people going into stores throughout the county on May 23-24 were wearing masks.

“It took me less than 10 minutes to count 40 people. About 75% ... didn’t wear masks,” Stookey said of his first location, Oak Creek Ace Hardware in Naches on May 23. “Right off the bat, I’m watching multiple people go in without masks.”

Only about 35% of the 2,584 people seen by volunteers wore masks. Stookey said he saw the same thing at Home Depot in Yakima the next day. He works at Virginia Mason Memorial and joined other hospital staff in the survey conducted with the Yakima Health District, Yakima County Health Coalition and Yakima Neighborhood Health. Volunteers parked within sight of business entrances and recorded what they saw on survey forms.

Of the men, 375 wore masks and 894 did not, Stookey said. Of women, 538 had masks and 777 weren’t wearing one. The percentage of those who wore masks was almost evenly split, with slightly more women than men wearing them. Stookey saw at least one older couple in which the woman wore a mask while her male companion didn’t, he said.

“I will tell you, pick a day and I can go and get those same results anywhere in Yakima County,” he said. “People don’t wear their masks.”

With the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Yakima County continuing to rise, health leaders are intensifying their plea for people to wear cloth face coverings in public settings — as recommended by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to slow the spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The 35% overall seen wearing masks on the busy Memorial Day weekend is far short of Yakima County health officials’ 80% goal.

That low percentage was of great concern, said Dr. Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist for communicable diseases for the Washington State Department of Health. Lindquist was part of a strike team that came to Yakima earlier this month to help the Yakima Health District respond to a sharp rise in cases in the county.

“I think one of the things that concern me is that people do not wear masks in Yakima,” he said, noting it was a contrast from Western Washington, where most people are wearing masks.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday mentioned Yakima County’s high infection rate and lack of mask wearing as he implored people to do more to protect their families.

He also said starting June 8 workers statewide are required to wear facial coverings unless they don’t interact with others on the job. Stores will be asked to install friendly signs encouraging people to wear masks.

No punishment

Dr. Teresa Everson, Yakima County health officer, considers wearing masks the best strategy for reducing the county’s alarming COVID-19 infection rates. She said the health district is considering a declaration that people should wear masks in public areas, like stores.

The declaration would not carry fines or penalties for those who do not comply, but rather would be a clear statement about what the health district expects people to do.

That would be similar to masking directives in Kittitas, Grant and Spokane counties. As stressed in a recent news release, “To Mask is Still an Ask in Kittitas County.” The only requirement of the Kittitas masking directive is that commercial establishments must have signage encouraging everyone to wear face coverings, the release said.

“We want people to understand the seriousness of our request in that science is showing face coverings to block infectious droplets from spreading from someone who may have COVID-19,” Health District spokeswoman Kasey Knutson said in the release.

Though wearing masks is not required by the directives, experts say it’s necessary for reducing Yakima County’s high COVID-19 infection rate, a crucial step to reaching Phase 2 of Inslee’s plan to reopen Washington.

“If they want to get out of this condition of having such a high rate (of infection), people need to wear masks in public settings,” Lindquist said.

As reported in a Kaiser Health News morning briefing on May 27, health officials have “really clear evidence that wearing masks works,” according to Dr. Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

“It’s probably a 50% protection against transmission,” Murray told CNN.

Dr. John Lynch, an infectious disease doctor at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said Friday that COVID-19 is transmitted by respiratory droplets emitted when people are talking, breathing and coughing. Face coverings help reduce transmission when people don’t have symptoms or are pre-symptomatic. They also keep people from touching their face.

They are especially important to keep people safe as the state begins to open up, he said.

“I’m a big fan of using masks as we move from Phase 1 to 2,” he said.

Masks should fit well and people should wash their hands before and after putting them on and removing them, he said.

Invisible threat

The interim director of support services at Virginia Mason Memorial, Stookey wears a mask and works with hundreds of others who do the same. “You come in this hospital, you’re wearing a mask,” he said.

“(Thursday), we had 29 positive COVID-19 patients at the hospital. We’ve had very, very, very few people that work here that became positive. The ones we have had were community acquired,” Stookey said. “Isn’t that telling?”

Stookey mentioned a recent “20/20” feature that used a black light to show how particles spread from people without masks. “Even in talking you can spread germs,” he said. When people put masks on, “you hardly saw anything.”

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath and fatigue. Symptoms develop between two and 14 days after exposure. People can transmit the virus before showing symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most people recover, and some never feel sick or notice any symptoms. They’re still infected, despite being asymptomatic, and like those who are presymptomatic, can transmit the virus to others.

“It’s really, really important for people to wear masks — not to protect yourself, but other people,” Stookey said.

With summer looming, temperatures are increasing, making masks feel hot on the face. They can be cumbersome, and some people can’t wear them due to medical reasons. Others stress their freedom to choose not to wear a mask, while business owners fear driving customers away if they require them, Stookey said.

“At Costco, you don’t get in their store without a mask. It hasn’t hurt their business. They’ll hand you a mask” if you don’t have one, he added. “I think all these other retail outlets should follow suit.”

“If we all wore masks, the pandemic curve would go down quickly. It’s already been proven,” he said.

Protecting others

In neighboring Kittitas County, which last week entered Phase 2 of the governor’s “Safe Start” plan due in part to its lower COVID-19 infection rate, officials strongly encourage the continued use of “the most effective tools we have to continue moving forward,” a recent news release said.

“Wear cloth masks. Protect our at risk population (pregnant, over 65, immunocompromised),” it said.

Speaking in a video update Wednesday, Dr. Mark Larson, Kittitas County health officer, reiterated the use of masks.

“Masking will keep our numbers down,” Larson said. “We will stay in Phase 2 longer if we don’t continue doing what we’ve been doing in Kittitas County so far (stay away from each other, keep the 6 foot social distance, stay within the family bubble, etc.).”

Inslee mentioned masks several times in his news conference Friday, saying the science is becoming increasingly clear they can be “very effective” in reducing rates of transmission of COVID-19.

“Wearing a mask at the grocery store, that’s a simple thing we can do, but that can help us reduce the infection rate,” he said. “It protects other people. It’s a demonstration of our love for our neighbors. It’s a demonstration that we don’t want to infect them.”

Stookey said masks are much more important than gloves.

“Wear your mask, wash your hands. It’s not that hard. Keep your distance.”

Reporter Mai Hoang contributed to this story.

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