The steep and steady rise in COVID-19 cases is spurring health officials throughout well-vaccinated California to walk back the mask freedom they granted the inoculated just a month ago and advise or order that they mask up indoors.
On Thursday, Los Angeles County became the first county in the state to order that masks be worn indoors regardless of vaccination status, starting Saturday.
Also on Thursday, Sacramento County joined Yolo County in recommending that everyone wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination — a step Los Angeles County health officials already had taken June 28. Several Bay Area counties including Alameda said Thursday they were strongly considering the same.
“While vaccination continues to be the best protection against severe COVID-19 infection, we are considering recommending masking indoors for everyone because it is a powerful tool that can help contain this more transmissible virus,” said Alameda County Public Health Department spokeswoman Neetu Balram.
On June 15 the state allowed people who are vaccinated to go without face coverings inside most public places, following federal health guidance from a month earlier. But that was before the Delta variant gained a foothold.
Balram said the Delta variant of the coronavirus is spreading infections quickly. Reported new cases in Alameda County are averaging 110 per day, and the daily case rate is now 6.7 per 100,000 people and rising. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that the Delta variant is now responsible for 58% of new infections across the country. In June it comprised 43 percent of all California specimens that were “sequenced” for variant type.
In Los Angeles County, Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said in a briefing with reporters that “masking indoors must again become a normal practice by all, regardless of vaccination status, so they can stop the trends and level of transmission we’re currently seeing,” according to KTLA-TV. He cited an 83% increase in new cases.
Other Bay Area counties are closely watching case rates with an eye toward a similar recommendation or order.
“We are working closely with state health officials to understand the risks of the Delta variant,” the San Francisco Department of Public Health said in a statement Thursday.
“We know that it is present in the state and the Bay Area, and we continue to align with state guidance that states that people who are not yet fully vaccinated are required to wear masks indoors or at large outdoor events,” the San Francisco health department said. “Those who are vaccinated can choose to wear masks if they feel more comfortable doing so. We continue to follow emerging data and science and will adjust this approach to expand masking recommendations, if necessary.”
The about-face comes despite California and the affected counties boasting some of the higher vaccination rates in the country. Statewide, 60.2% of those 12 and older who are eligible are fully vaccinated in California, compared with 64.6% in New York, 58.9% in Pennsylvania, 54.4% in Florida and 51.2% in Texas.
In San Francisco, 76% of those who are eligible are fully vaccinated. Even so, local health experts are uneasy about the trajectory of new cases.
“We’re seeing a pretty steep COVID uptick,” Dr. Bob Wachter, who chairs the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, said Thursday on Twitter, even with the high vaccination rate and many people already continuing to wear masks inside stores. Daily cases, Wachter said, are up fourfold, and hospitalizations have doubled.
If you’re wondering how bad Delta really is, even in highly vaccinated SF (76% of >age 12 fully vaxxed) & still w/ a lot of masking (most folks in stores), we’re seeing a pretty steep Covid uptick. Daily cases up 4-fold (10->42; Fig L), hospital pts doubled (9->19; R)(Thread 1/4) pic.twitter.com/6JC2UlA0Sf
— Bob Wachter (@Bob_Wachter) July 15, 2021
Wachter noted that San Francisco’s cases “are still fairly low” and are “cause for caution, not panic.”
“But this kind of uptick” in highly vaccinated San Francisco, Wachter said, “shows that Delta is very real” and that places with much lower vaccination rates “may well get clobbered.” With more COVID-19 in the air, Wachter said people should expect more “breakthrough cases” among the inoculated. And he added that although he’s vaccinated, he’s “back to double-mask” wearing in stores and, though still dining indoors, “might abort if trends continue.”
Like San Francisco, other Bay Area counties said that while they are sticking with the statewide guidance allowing the vaccinated to go mask free indoors in most places if they choose, they are closely monitoring the situation and may revise their guidance.
“Our health officers are looking at case rate, hospitalization and death data and are considering if any changes in current recommendations might be helpful,” said Preston Merchant, spokesman for the San Mateo County public health department.
To be sure, California is nowhere near the peak of its deadly winter surge. On January 8, the state’s 7-day average of new cases per 100,000 people reached 112.3. It fell as low as 2 on June 1, and was 4.8 on Thursday.
But Sacramento County health officials said that in less than a month, their daily case rate has risen drastically, from 3.8 on June 20 to 10 on July 14.
“The drastic increase in cases is concerning — as is the number of people choosing not to get vaccinated,” said Sacramento County Public Health Officer Olivia Kasirye. “Our best protection against COVID-19 continues to be the vaccine. We urge all eligible residents to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves, and their family and friends.”