King County health officer: CDC COVID risk map may be too 'lenient'

On the eve of Washington state lifting its mask mandate except in special circumstances, King County’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, says you may not want to ditch the mask.  

Duchin also raised questions about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) oversimplified risk assessment map people are using to make their COVID-19 decisions.

"I am concerned with thresholds being too high," Duchin said during a briefing on Friday.   

The thresholds he is referring to involve the matrix that makes up the CDC’s Community Risk Assessment for each county in the country.

The assessment is "a new toll to help communities decide what prevention steps to take based on the latest data," the CDC says on its website. The levels are coded into the colors, green, yellow and orange and are based on hospital beds being used, patients admitted to hospitals with COVID and the total number of COVID cases in an area.

Asotin County, in the southeastern corner of the state, is the only county set at level orange by the CDC. In that county, the CDC is recommending everyone wear a mask indoors.

But Duchin suggests the hospitalization rate threshold may be too lenient, meaning the hospitalization rate to any of the color-coded areas should be lowered.

"I am a bit concerned about what seems to be a high hospitalization rate for triggering the implementation of community measures like masking," he said. "I think a seven-day new hospitalization rate of between 10 and 20 per 100,000 is a bit high".

He said a hospitalization rate of 10 per 100,000 would be the highest weekly rate of the last 12 flu seasons.

Pierce County is one of nine counties the CDC rated as yellow, meaning people at high-risk should consider wearing a mask and take other precautions.

"We don’t believe that data is correct on the CDC’s community-level site," said Naomi Wilson, the Assessment Manager for Pierce County Health.

The metric that puts Pierce County into the yellow category is the same metric Duchin believes may be set too high: hospitalization rates.  Wilson said her agency is working with the Washington State Department of Health to get updated information to the CDC.

She says the county’s hospitalization rates are improving as more people with COVID are moved out of hospitals and into alternative care facilities.

"We are pretty optimistic that trend is going to continue and very soon that we will be at a low CDC risk level," said Wilson.

When asked by FOX 13 if King County will be scaling back vaccination and testing sites in light of the lifting of the mask mandate and improving numbers, Duchin says there is a plan to "pivot," but did not say what that meant or when that would happen.

Here's where you'll still need to wear a mask after March 12 in Washington and Oregon

As Washington and Oregon end masking requirements for most places, there are still some situations where you'll need to wear a mask.