Mass vaccination clinic at the San Mateo County Event Center.

While COVID-19 cases have dipped in San Mateo County, health officials were reluctant to predict when the county would continue its progress through the state’s reopening tier system despite currently meeting most criteria necessary for entry into the least restrictive yellow tier.

Addressing the Board of Supervisors during a virtual meeting Tuesday, Chief of Health Louise Rogers worked to calm expectations that the county would see a tier change this week, noting it’s unclear whether it will meet criteria necessary to move into the least restrictive yellow tier.

“We are hitting this low level that you may remember we hit previously before the surge and in better times over the summer and we were kind of stuck there,” Rogers said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next but I know it won't be this week.”

The county fell into the orange tier once before but holiday season spikes in COVID-19 cases moved the region back under strict restrictions and eventually into a second statewide shelter order. Experts anticipate cases may tick up again this spring and summer but Rogers said calling slight increases in cases a surge is inaccurate.

Currently, the county has an adjusted case rate of 2.4 new cases per 100,000 residents, a positivity rate of .9% and a Health Equity Index, monitoring virus spread in underserved communities, of 1.8%.

Because the state has met its goal of administering 4 million vaccines in its most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, the county only needs its adjusted case rate to fall below two new cases before additional restrictions can be lifted.

The state does allow for tier movement to occur without all criteria having been met but Rogers noted officials are informed of the tier change before the announcement is made publicly.

San Mateo County is now joined in the orange tier by Contra Costa, Monterey, Napa and Sonoma counties. In the orange tier restaurants, places of worship, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums are allowed to expand to 50% capacity. Card rooms, bowling alleys, wineries, breweries and gyms are permitted to expand capacity to 25% with gyms also permitted to open indoor pools.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced Tuesday that the tier system will be lifted on June 15 given that vaccination progress continues steadily among all groups and COVID-19 hospitalizations remain low.

“We now have a definitive date, a definitive timeline for when our economy and our small businesses can come roaring back to life,” David Canepa, Board of Supervisors president, said in a statement. “June 15 will be here before you know it and the announcement today that all sectors of the economy, in all 58 counties, can reopen at or near full capacity is cause for celebration.”

The San Mateo County Office of Education also revised its pandemic response guidelines to help school districts accommodate the return of students to classrooms.

The document reduces the minimum distance allowed between students to 3 feet, down from the previous standard of 6 feet. The updated regulation aligns with the most recent guidance from the CDC, and should help districts overcome space limitations that effectively cap the amount of students able to return to classrooms.

Additionally, the document clarifies that those vaccinated will not need to quarantine if exposed to a person infected with COVID-19, though symptoms should be monitored closely. And testing is not required after a domestic trip for those who are vaccinated, however, tests are necessary after international travel.

Students and staff should be screened for symptoms and COVID-19 exposure when entering campuses, according to the updated guidelines. Previously the emphasis had been on screening and taking temperature of those at school.

“The updated guidance reflects this new knowledge and helps schools focus more specifically on behaviors and conditions that are understood to be most effective in mitigating spread of the virus, especially in school settings,” said county Superintendent Nancy Magee in a prepared statement.

In the county, 20 residents are being hospitalized with COVID-19, eight in the ICU. More than 40,600 residents have tested positive for the virus that has claimed 553 county residents.

While new cases remain low, the county has also continued its vaccine rollout, remaining focused on targeted community clinics. Nearly 318,000 San Mateo County residents have received at least one vaccine dose, accounting for 49.5% of those 16 and older.

This week, six clinics will be held across Daly City, East Palo Alto, North Fair Oaks, San Mateo and South San Francisco. A total of 33 pharmacies are also administering doses including four Costcos, Safeways, 15 Walgreens, seven Rite Aids, four CVS and one Cardinal Pharmacy.

Health officials anticipate shipments will increase in the coming weeks, allowing for mass vaccination events at the San Mateo County Event Center and San Francisco International Airport to reconvene.

Still, Rogers doubled down on the need for the public to follow safety protocol like hand washing, social distancing and wearing face coverings. She also recommended residents continue to get tested, both helping identify positive cases and contributing to the county’s credit that brings down its adjusted case rate.

“We’ve seen enormous progress in reaching out with the vaccine to all the corners of the county,” Rogers said. “We still have a ways to go, calling us all to nurture optimism while still energetically protecting each other with masking and other measures.”

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