Most of San Francisco Bay Space will raise indoor masks order

Most of the San Francisco Bay Area will lift local indoor mask rules next week, with officials saying that the COVID-19 danger has fallen enough to safely take the crucial step.

Along with Los Angeles County, the Bay Area has long had some of the strictest masking requirements in the state. But many officials in the Bay Area have now decided it’s time to relax local mask orders for indoor public spaces for vaccinated people, although they continue to strongly recommend mask-wearing. Only Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, is keeping indoor mask rules for now in the region.

“We are able to take this next major step of removing the universal indoor mask requirement because we have laid a strong foundation in good public health protections and know we can prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths,” Dr. Susan Philip, San Francisco’s health officer, said in a statement.

California officials have said they will allow a statewide mask order for indoor public spaces to expire on Tuesday, allowing counties to drop the mask mandate for vaccinated people in indoor public spaces on Wednesday. Unvaccinated individuals over age 2 statewide will continue to be required to wear masks in all indoor public settings.

And other masking orders will still apply, such as in healthcare settings, on public transportation and in K-12 schools and childcare settings.

gov. Gavin Newsom also said the state should, in the coming days, make a public announcement regarding mask-wearing in public schools as well as the release of an “endemic plan” outlining strategies for the next phase of the battle against COVID-19.

But a top priority — both now and moving forward — remains getting more Californians vaccinated, as well as boosted when they are eligible.

“We are humbled in the face of this disease in all its forms and manifestations, mindful that it is not extinguished, it’s not yet behind us, mindful we still have a lot of work to do to convince people that they should still get vaccinated, let alone boosted,” Newsom said.

While they are dropping fast, case rates are still high in the Bay Area — about 430 cases a week for every 100,000 residents, according to a Times analysis, still far above the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for recommending indoor public mask- wearing for vaccinated people, which is 50 cases a week for every 100,000 residents. LA County’s rate is even higher, at about 650 cases a week for every 100,000 residents.

But the Bay Area’s hospitals weren’t hit as hard as Southern California’s in the latest winter wave, and vaccination and booster rates in the Bay Area are among the highest in the state. Santa Clara County has 84% ​​of its residents of all ages considered fully vaccinated; San Francisco, 82%; and LA County, 69%.

One-third of LA County residents of all ages have received a booster shot; while more than half of San Francisco and Santa Clara County residents have received the additional dose.

“Omicron was an immense stress test on our system, and although it presented many difficulties because of the sheer number of people who became infected, we made it through with schools and businesses open and without overwhelming our hospitals because we have built up strong defenses against the virus with our high vaccination and booster rates,” Philip said.

Health officials in the Bay Area still recommended vaccinated people wear a mask as the safer approach in indoor public settings. “Wearing a mask in indoor public settings and in crowded settings is still a good idea and something we strongly recommend,” the San Mateo County health officer, Dr. Scott Morrow, said in a statement.

Wearing a mask remains “the safest choice for yourself and your loved ones,” Dr. Nicholas Moss, the Alameda County health officer, said in a statement.

Santa Clara County, Northern California’s most populous county, will continue a local indoor mask order, aligning with the approach of Los Angeles County, where health officials agreed that it’s too early to lift a mask order in indoor public spaces.

Based on current trends, Santa Clara County health officials expect that they’ll meet revised criteria to lift their mask mandate perhaps by early March or so. LA County is on track to lift its local indoor mask mandate sometime between late March or late April, according to a Times analysis of trends.

“We still have very high levels of community transmission — still higher than at any other point in the pandemic, pre-Omicron. And so, the risk of being exposed to someone with COVID in our community is still high,” Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County public health director and health officer, said at a press briefing. “We cannot lift the indoor mask requirement with community transmission as high as it is right now.”

Santa Clara County is reporting about 460 cases a week for every 100,000 residents, which is about 1,300 coronavirus cases a day. According to data Cody provided, officials will wait for the case rate to fall to 200 cases a week for every 100,000 residents — which is 550 cases a day for Santa Clara County — and remain there for one week.

Santa Clara County also wants to wait until coronavirus-positive hospitalizations remain low and steady. “We’ve not yet met this metric as our hospitalizations have plateaued, but are not yet on their way down, though we do hope and expect to see them trending that way very soon,” Cody said.

Los Angeles County is waiting for case rates to fall to 50 cases a week for every 100,000 residents, which is 730 cases a day in the county, and remain below that level for two weeks. Based on current trends of cases falling in half every week, LA County is on track to reach that threshold in early March, meaning it’s plausible LA County’s indoor mask mandate could be dropped by late March.

dr George Rutherford, a UC San Francisco epidemiologist, said it was reasonable for Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties to retain their mask mandates, even as other counties choose to go with masking policies as lenient as the state allows. Compared to the rest of the Bay Area’s most highly populated counties, Santa Clara County has one of the higher case rates — its rate of 464 cases a week for every 100,000 residents is 40% higher than San Francisco’s, which is 330 cases a week for every 100,000 residents.

“We’ve had a very cautious approach to this. And I think that’s not an unreasonable way to do it,” Rutherford said.

It’s also reasonable for the rest of the Bay Area to drop their local indoor mask mandate, Rutherford said: “That’s a judgment call about how it fits best with the local epidemiology.”

Rutherford, however, did suggest a more cautious approach in retaining mask mandates for harder-hit areas of the state, such as the San Joaquin Valley, where local mask mandates are politically difficult to implement. The San Joaquin Valley has a case rate of about 550 cases a week for every 100,000 residents, and hospitals remain quite strained there.

In announcing the plan to relax California’s indoor masking rule, state officials noted that the numbers of newly confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalized COVID-19 patients are down significantly from last month’s surge-time heights.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Newsom said during a bill-signing ceremony Wednesday.

Though he said he thinks “broadly, we’re moving in a direction that will be embraced by the vast majority of cities and counties in this state over the coming weeks,” Newsom noted that some areas may elect for a different near-term approach .

“We’ve made tremendous progress, and that progress is exampled all across the state of California — but not equally,” he said. “And as a consequence of that, considering such, California has always established itself from the bottom up. One size does not fit all. We have basic mandates in terms of minimum expectations, but we allow local control. We allow local decisions to be made.”

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