PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — During a press conference Thursday afternoon, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state’s indoor mask mandate will lift on March 21 — a date where hospitalizations are projected to be low enough that hospitals will no longer be overwhelmed.

He said the state’s “significant decline” in COVID-19 cases means the administration will relax precautions and take steps toward “regaining a more normal life.”

Health care centers, long-term care facilities and prisons will still have mask requirements.

However, the lifting of the mask mandate will not preclude Washingtonians from wearing masks indoors if they want.

“That will be part of our order to protect you and your ability should you desire to do so,” he said.

“We’re removing the state mandate of masks, but this will not remove the ability of businesses or other entities to make their own independent decision for their business,” Inslee said.

The governor said although the rate of transmission remains high, relief is “in sight” for Washington. He acknowledged that hospitalizations, although declining, are still at a higher rate in Washington than in any previous wave of the pandemic.

“The threat of COVID will not be eliminated on March 21,” Inslee said, encouraging more Washingtonians to get vaccinated.

“We know that we have some good news here, but we know we have a journey still ahead of us, to get these hospitalization numbers down so that people can go into hospitals and get treatment when they need it — for heart attacks and car accidents and everything else,” he said.

Inslee also announced that beginning March 1, the state will no longer require proof of vaccinations for attending large events.

In a press conference held last week, Inslee announced outdoor mask requirements in the state would be lifted by Feb. 18. Washington state’s current policy requires masks to be worn at gatherings of 500 or more people.

Inslee cited declining COVID hospitalizations as evidence the state has passed the worst of the omicron variant.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s full press conference from Thursday can be viewed in the player above.

“March 21st is still more than three weeks away, and the feeling is, by then rates will be so low, there is no need to have an indoor universal mask mandate,” Clark County Public Health Director Dr. Alan Melnick said.

Dr. Melnick says in Clark County, the case rate is still high — double what it was at the peak of the delta surge — but the drop over the past few weeks has been so dramatic It’s less than half of what it was three weeks ago.

“Actually, hospitalization numbers are going down, so they are improving, just like they are elsewhere in the state and the rest of the country,” Melnick explained.

In Oregon, the outlook is similar as cases are dropping. Peter Graven, the director of the office of advanced analytics at OHSU, says that’s making a difference for hospital workers. 

“At this point, we are looking for that light at the end of the tunnel where once we reach that certain level, the state is willing to modify conditions in early March,” Graven said. 

Governor Kate Brown has said that Oregon will lift its mask mandate by March 31 and if the trends continue it could happen sooner. 

“My guess is by the end of March, we should be there, maybe even a couple weeks early, reaching levels that are much more manageable,” Graven said.

In the meantime, health officials in Oregon and Washington are asking people to continue following the indoor requirements until the date they are actually lifted.

“It’s certainly possible to create a rebound right now. There are a lot of susceptible people of we go ahead and stop everything too soon, it’s possible to have a rebound in infections,” Graven explained.

Dr. Melnick says one number they’d like to improve upon before masks come off in schools is childhood vaccines.  

He says that at last check the numbers showed that statewide only about 28% of kids 5 -11 years old are vaccinated. In Clark County, the number is 22% and in Cowlitz county 12%.

Melnick says they need to be moving in that direction to get more kids vaccinated.