Health officials in Pierce County are taking steps to learn just how many people are wearing masks in public, and if they’re wearing them correctly. They say their findings show it’s not enough, and habits vary widely depending on the type of location.
Staff and volunteers with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department recently conducted a 48-hour survey, during which they observed people in more than 20 locations countywide.
Cindan Gizzi, director of assessment, planning and development with the health department, says the effort will help inform officials' strategy as they encourage people to wear masks properly.
Overall, 77 percent of people observed between July 31 and Aug. 1 were wearing masks — 66 percent with full coverage over their noses, mouths and chins.
“While that’s good news, we want to see 100 percent,” Gizzi said. “We want everyone to be wearing a mask out in these public locations where we were observing.”
While geography made little difference in people’s habits — mask use was similar inside Tacoma (76 percent) and in other parts of the county (78 percent) — significant differences existed between types of public places.
For example, 96 percent of people shopping at farmers markets wore masks compared with 63 percent of patrons observed near bars and taverns. Parks and beaches saw the lowest rate of mask use at 40 percent.
Officials have said masks aren’t required outdoors if people can maintain a distance of 6 feet from people outside their households. But Gizzi says it’s better to err on the side of caution, since it’s hard for people to judge exactly how far apart they are from people around them.
“We know that there’s some confusion among people about when to wear a mask and when not to wear a mask,” she said. “Again, our message is to wear a mask whenever you are out in a public place.”
Gizzi acknowledged it can be hard for the general public to grasp the nuances of masking regulations, specifically when to wear a mask outdoors. She says her default is to wear a mask in all public places, to be safe.
“I wear a mask whenever I’m outdoors, unless it’s in my yard or someplace really close to home,” Gizzi said. “I want to make sure that I’m not spreading my germs.”
“We invested this time because research shows masks can decrease the spread of COVID-19,” the statement reads. “Studies, including from New York City and Washington’s Yakima County, provide evidence masks work.”
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department will repeat the survey throughout the year. Gizzi said the hope is that people will not only continue wearing masks with full coverage, but that the number of people who do will improve.
Similar survey efforts are happening in King and Snohomish counties.
Pierce County experienced one of the highest increases in COVID-19 cases in the state last month compared to other counties, according to the latest information released by the health department.
As of Tuesday, residents aged 20-39 remained the most affected group, accounting for just over 36 percent of the cases in the past two weeks.
While that demographic has started to see a decline in the rate of infection, people ages 70 to 79 are starting to see an increase — roughly tenfold since the beginning of the summer — and the 40-59 age group also is seeing increases. And hospitals are reporting a higher percentage of beds used for COVID-19 patients compared to other counties, according to the health department.
Pierce County has seen 5,737 cases and 128 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Tuesday’s latest count.