Concerned for the health and safety of unvaccinated residents and maintaining an open society, Bay Area health officials instituted a mask mandate effective Tuesday requiring the public to wear face coverings when indoors until COVID-19 cases drastically decline.
“As San Mateo County joins its neighbors in issuing these orders, the goal is to avoid disrupting businesses and residents’ everyday activities,” San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow said in a press release. “We want our communities to stay open while being as safe as possible.”
San Mateo County joined Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties as well as Berkeley in requiring its residents to mask up when indoors regardless of vaccination status, effective 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3.
The announcement was fueled by spiking COVID-19 cases which officials largely attributed to the new delta variant. The strain was first spotted in India and has quickly become the dominant strain in the region, following national trends. The mutation is far more contagious than previous versions of the virus, including through vaccinated people.
During a press conference attended by most of the eight health officers, Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss backed the regional mask mandate by noting recent evidence indicates that vaccinated residents are more likely to spread the new delta variant than previously thought.
“That’s really a change from what we had seen earlier on and for that reason the added layer of protection of masks on everyone in public settings becomes much more important,” Moss said.
In San Mateo County, nearly 2,000 residents have contracted the virus in the last 30 days, totaling 44,430 cases since the start of the pandemic last March. Most alarming to officials is the recent spike in hospitalizations which is between 25 to 35 residents in San Mateo County on any given day in recent weeks.
As in neighboring jurisdictions, Chief of Health Louise Rogers said unvaccinated residents account for a majority of COVID-related hospitalizations and all patients receiving treatment in the ICU. Vaccinated seniors with comorbidities are also at risk of experiencing harsh side effects after contracting the virus, regional health officials said during the press conference.
David Canepa, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, called the variant a “killer which requires us to take this step back to safeguard the community,” in a press release.
Despite the county’s strong vaccination efforts, he noted COVID-19 case rates have doubled in the county. Under the state’s previous tiered reopening system, the county would be placed in the most restrictive purple tier for currently experiencing 11.5 new cases for every 100,000 residents on a rolling seven-day average, according to state data.
“Since COVID does not respect county borders, mandating the wearing of masks indoors is a wise decision by our health experts. But, if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, the surest way out of this pandemic is to get the shot. Now is the time,” Canepa said.
Nearly 90% of San Mateo County residents ages 12 and older have been vaccinated since doses were first being offered to the public starting late last year. Rogers estimated that the county has about 74,000 eligible residents left to reach, Rogers said.
“The vaccine is really the most powerful tool we have to fight COVID-19 and we really want everyone to rally together and do everything they can,” Rogers said during an interview after the press briefing.
Vaccines could be made available to younger populations later this fall but recent data has shown children are still not contracting the virus at high rates, Rogers said. Still, officials said the masking requirements were vital for ensuring children are able to return to in-person classes, including those still too young to receive a vaccine.
Masking requirements are also intended to protect business operations after stores, restaurants, bars, personal care services and entertainment spaces were permitted to fully reopen in June. Around that time, masking requirements were also lifted but Moss said the regional mandate will be useful for business owners eager to require masking of patrons and employees.
Like previous masking guidelines, people will be permitted to remove their face coverings when eating or drinking and businesses will be expected to uphold proper masking requirements.
Officials encouraged unvaccinated people and those who are vaccinated with underlying health conditions to avoid indoor spaces where people may remove their masks. Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase suggested people in those categories avoid dining out altogether.
Unlike previous restrictions which were closely linked to case rates, Contra Costa Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano said health officials will consider lifting the mandate once hospitalizations fall to mid-June figures. In San Mateo County, those rates were in the single digits for months before the most recent summer surge.
Additional restrictions are not being considered at this time, Rogers said, sharing confidence in masking as an effective tool for reducing the spread of the virus while the county works on vaccinating the remaining eligible population.
She said the county has seen an encouraging increase in vaccine interest in recent weeks as local groups registered for intimate pop-up vaccine events. Community interest in testing has also increased, providing the county with adequate data for tracking the spread of the virus.
“We’re hoping people realize in order to ensure their own safety and the people they love, getting the vaccine is really the best protection,” Rogers said. “This should create heightened awareness among unvaccinated populations that it’s really time to take the necessary steps.”
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