Bay Area health officers set criteria for removing indoor mask mandate

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, GRAPHIC BY ALLISON HUANG

Bay Area health officers yesterday set criteria for rescinding indoor mask requirements, potentially paving the way for a removal of the mandate previously set in August.

In order to remove the mandates, counties must reach the “moderate” tier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 transmission standards; the county health officer must judge that COVID-19 hospitalizations are “low and stable”; and either 80% of the county must be fully vaccinated or eight weeks must have passed since emergency authorization of COVID-19 vaccines for 5 to 11 year olds.

Santa Clara County sits in the “substantial” tier of transmission, just above the “moderate” tier, and 84.2% of residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated.

Yesterday’s criteria, set jointly by eight Bay Area jurisdictions, are the first metrics offered by the health officers for transitioning out of the indoor mask mandate since it was set in August.

“With regional data showing that the surge is now receding, and with the Bay Area one of the most vaccinated regions in the country, the health officers agree it is time to plan for a transition,” a county press release reads.

A rescinded mask mandate, though, would not preclude businesses from continuing to impose their own requirements, the health officers said.

Bay Area counties issue indoor mask mandate

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, GRAPHIC BY ALLISON HUANG

Santa Clara County residents will have to wear masks in indoor public settings effective tomorrow, August 3. The mandate applies to all residents, regardless of vaccination status, and was jointly issued by eight Bay Area health officers today.

The order, which builds off of the looser masking recommendation issued by the same counties in mid-July, aligns with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bay Area health officers will track hospitalization rates and case counts in determining when to end the mandate; the health officials offered no target date or metrics for ending the order.

“Vaccines remain the most powerful tool in the fight against COVID-19, including the Delta variant,” the order reads. “Nonetheless, the Delta variant is infecting a small percentage of the vaccinated in the Bay Area — who still remain strongly protected against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. In those instances of infection in a vaccinated person, a face covering prevents further spread.”

The health officers noted that the vast majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, and the few that are vaccinated have other comorbidities or are elderly.

Today’s mask mandate does not ban indoor dining, although the health officers recommended that unvaccinated residents avoid “high risk” indoor activities, such as indoor dining and visiting gyms and movie theaters.

Santa Clara County’s test positivity rate currently sits at 3.1%, a percentage not seen since Feb. 6. 

CDC reverses, recommends fully vaccinated wear masks indoors; CDPH follows suit

STORY BY MELODY XU, GRAPHIC BY ALLISON HUANG

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday recommended that even fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings in counties with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission.  

Over 63% of counties nationwide currently fall under this category, including Santa Clara County.

The California Department of Public Health issued a similar recommendation — not mandate — on Wednesday.

The recommendation is a direct response to the highly transmissible Delta variant, which has been in wide circulation and currently makes up around 83% of analyzed COVID-19 cases across the country; the state of California has seen a similar trend with the highly transmissible variant.

The CDC emphasized the recommendation to those at increased risk for COVID-19, those with household members with increased risk or those with unvaccinated household members.

Similarly, the CDC also reversed its previous stance on masks for schools; it now recommends indoor masking for all school staff and students regardless of vaccination status.

In practice, the CDC’s changing guidance won’t immediately mean anything for Santa Clara County; the California Department of Public Health has already mandated that students in California, regardless of vaccination status, must wear masks until early November at the earliest. 

And, Santa Clara County — along with seven other Bay Area counties — has already once again recommended that residents wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, and urged businesses to reinstate universal mask mandates.

The CDC’s guidance should, however, lend itself to bolstering the credibility of local orders, and possibly back county officials should they decide to reinstate a universal masking mandate, as opposed to the less strict recommendation that currently stands. 

California mandates universal masking in schools, diverging from CDC guidance

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN

Students in California will have to wear masks until at least early November, the California Department of Public Health said on July 12.

The CDPH’s policy diverges from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation made three days prior, which said that vaccinated students and teachers don’t need to wear masks at school.

The universal masking policy, however, means that schools won’t need to enforce mandatory physical distancing, vaccinated and unvaccinated students will be treated the same and quarantine requirements will be more lax — which wouldn’t have been possible under the CDC’s recommendation.

The new quarantine requirement allows students who were wearing masks during a close contact case to continue attending school, as long as they are asymptomatic, follow mask requirements, get tested twice a week during the ten days following an exposure and continue to wear a mask in other community settings.

The new state guidance takes into account a variety of considerations, including stigma surrounding different mask wearing policies, difficulties in tracking vaccination status and uncertainty surrounding the highly transmissible Delta variant.

According to the CDPH, differential mask policies can lead to “potential stigma, bullying [and] isolation of vaccinated or unvaccinated students, depending on the culture and attitudes in the school or surrounding community.”

The only exception to the masking policy is that students who live together — regardless of vaccination status — will not have to wear masks around one another at school.

The CDPH will continually reassess its policy, and by November 1, 2021, will determine whether to update mask requirements or recommendations.

A step back: Santa Clara County recommends indoor masking

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Given a rise in local COVID-19 transmission, Santa Clara County health officials Friday recommended wearing masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, in a step back from June’s significant ease in health restrictions. 

The recommendation falls short of a mandate, and instead asks that residents wear masks in public places “to ensure easy verification that all unvaccinated people are masked,” and as an “extra precautionary measure.”

It also asks that businesses once again adopt universal masking requirements for customers.

The county’s recommendation — which was made jointly with seven other Bay Area counties — comes as the county’s test positivity rate has risen to 1.7%, a number last recorded in February. 

From late April to early this month, the county test positivity rate has dwindled around 0.5%, while the highest rate this year was in early January, at 9.2%. 

Health officials have largely blamed the highly transmissible Delta variant — which now accounts for 43% of cases in California, and 58% of cases nationally — for the spike in the test positivity rate.

The county will revisit the recommendation in the coming weeks as health officials monitor transmission rates, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccination rates.

“Fully vaccinated people are well-protected from infections and serious illness due to known COVID-19 variants,” a county press release reads. “Vaccinating as many people as possible, as soon as possible, continues to be our best defense against severe COVID-19 infection.”

CDC says vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday said that fully vaccinated students and staff no longer need to wear masks, as part of an update to its guidance for K–12 schools to reflect the impact of now widely available vaccines.

The CDC’s recommendations should guide — if not mirror — the policy set by the California Department of Public Health, which Santa Clara County will likely default to. 

Friday’s guidance also says that in general, people don’t need to wear masks outdoors regardless of vaccination status, with the exception of unvaccinated people in crowded settings in areas of high transmission.

Cases where the CDC suggests schools consider implementing universal mask usage include having high COVID-19 transmission within the school or community; lacking a system to monitor vaccine status of students and staff; having difficulty enforcing mask policies that are not universal; and receiving community feedback that teachers and students would not participate in in-person learning without universal mask usage.

Masks continue to be required on school buses, regardless of vaccination status.

On the social distancing front, the CDC’s guidance recommends 3-foot distancing between all students, but that recommendation appears to be more flexible than the masking policy; if 3-foot distancing would prevent schools from fully reopening, the requirement appears to be no-longer necessary.

“Because of the importance of in-person learning, schools where not everyone is fully vaccinated should implement physical distancing to the extent possible within their structures, but should not exclude students from in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement,” the guidance reads.

Ultimately, the guidance acknowledges that vaccines are the most effective mitigation measure, and encourages schools to promote vaccination among eligible students and staff.

Local school districts are expected to set their COVID-19 safety policy for the fall once the state releases its guidance.

Vaccinated Californians no longer need to wear masks; state lifts majority of COVID-19 restrictions

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Fully vaccinated Californians no longer need to wear masks or socially distance in most settings, in a dramatic ease of state COVID-19 restrictions.

The relaxed health restrictions — which effectively fully reopen the economy by lifting capacity restrictions on businesses, and scrapping the color tier system that dictated restrictions in counties — has been planned since April.

Exceptions to the no mask policy include when on public transit, indoors in K–12 schools and childcare settings, healthcare facilities and homeless shelters. The state has indicated that it will align K–12 safety restrictions with pending guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could include a lift on masking and social distancing requirements for certain ages.

Unvaccinated individuals are expected to follow previous state COVID-19 safety restrictions which include wearing masks indoors and socially distancing.

The state has also lifted its travel advisory, which had previously discouraged Californians from traveling outside of their local region.

As per usual, local health officers are permitted to implement tighter restrictions, but Santa Clara County health officials have fallen in line with the state’s mandates.

State to keep indoor mask mandate as Santa Clara County drops to yellow tier

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Santa Clara County today dropped to the yellow tier of coronavirus restrictions, as the state continues to eye its June 15 full reopening that’s contingent upon “stable and low” hospitalization rates and sufficient vaccine supply.

The yellow tier is the state’s least restrictive tier of coronavirus restrictions, and allows for expanded capacities for businesses across the board.

The drop in tier assignment comes as California health officials yesterday announced that the state will keep its existing masking guidance — even in light of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s loosened mandate — until the state’s mid-June reopening.

State guidance only requires masks outdoors for vaccinated individuals when at “crowded events,” and for unvaccinated people outdoors when physical distancing cannot be maintained. Face coverings are required in all indoor settings outside the home regardless of vaccination status.

After June 15, the state expects to fall in line with the CDC’s guidance and allow vaccinated individuals to go maskless in both indoor and outdoor settings.

“This four-week period will give Californians time to prepare for this change while we continue our relentless focus on delivering vaccines,” the state’s guidance reads.

“I will admit to you, it is difficult after wearing this mask for so long to feel comfortable without it on, despite the fact that I’m vaccinated,” Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said at a press conference today. “And it’s going to take time for many of us to make that change.”

The state appears to be on track for its June 15 reopening, with a 0.9% positivity rate and a steady supply of vaccine; as of May 15, 74% of all Santa Clara County residents 16 and up had received at least one dose of vaccine, and eligibility just recently expanded to adolescents as young as 12.

CDC signs off on Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds; state expected to expand eligibility

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN

In a widely anticipated move, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today gave the go-ahead for administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the 12- to 15-year-old age range.

The CDC’s green light follows the Food and Drug Administration’s Monday approval of the vaccine. Only three states — Arkansas, Delaware and Georgia — opened eligibility to the expanded age range immediately following the FDA’s approval, although all others are expected to expand eligibility in light of the CDC’s go-ahead.

Locally, some 72% of Santa Clara County residents over the age of 16 have received at least one dose of vaccine, with the 16 to 29 age range consisting of the highest number of unvaccinated residents.

In an apparent effort to combat any adolescent reluctance, teens who get vaccinated at the Levi’s Stadium mass vaccination site can apparently expect a tour of the San Francisco 49ers locker room, a live DJ, a socially distanced “dance party” and limited quantities of 49ers “swag” and Starbucks and Chipotle gift cards.

As vaccine supply dramatically increases, 62% of eligible Santa Clara County residents have received first dose

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN

County officials today celebrated one million residents ages 16 and up having received at least one vaccine dose, a major milestone in the county’s race to vaccinate the population. 62% of eligible residents in the county have received first doses, and just above 30% are fully vaccinated, made possible by a significant increase in vaccine supply from the federal government.

“We need to take a moment and take a deep breath and really celebrate — this is a big deal,” County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said at a press conference today. “Remember, [vaccinations] started in mid-December, but with just a trickle. It’s just recently that we’ve had plenty of doses to go around.”

Cody also reaffirmed the county’s commitment to equitable distribution, citing ongoing efforts to reach communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Some of that outreach has included going door-to-door in hard-hit neighborhoods to help residents register for vaccine appointments, and providing on-site vaccinations for homeless community members.

County health officials just a month ago had bemoaned a slow and inconsistent flow of vaccine doses coming from both the state and federal governments, right as the state announced expanding vaccine eligibility. 

Today, the mood seemed to make an almost 180-degree flip, with positivity and optimism being among the pervading themes.

“After so many long and difficult months, we can now see a very clear path out of this pandemic,” Cody said. “But we are far from done. Many appointments are available to receive the vaccine. I appeal to the community members who haven’t already to schedule your vaccination as soon as possible.”