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Indoor Mask Mandate Reinstated in Most Bay Area Counties, Regardless of Vaccination Status

Whether you’re vaccinated or not, you’ll now have to wear a mask indoors in public spaces throughout most of the Bay Area starting on Tuesday.

The reinstated mask mandates were announced Monday by health officials in seven Bay Area counties, in an effort to curb the rapid spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant — which is believed to be about twice as transmissible as the original virus strain.

“Indoor masking is a temporary measure that will help us deal with the delta variant, which is causing a sharp increase in cases, and we know increases in hospitalizations and deaths will follow,” Dr. Naveena Bobba, San Francisco’s acting health officer, said in a statement. “When we all wear face coverings indoors, we are protecting our fellow residents and helping our healthcare workers.”

The counties re-upping their indoor mask requirements include Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma, as well as the city of Berkeley, which has its own health department. Napa and Solano counties have yet to follow suit.

The mandates apply to all public and private businesses and workplaces, officials said, noting they would “work with” local businesses to ensure compliance. Indoor dining is still allowed.

The local orders come amid a new surge in delta variant cases and deaths, primarily among unvaccinated people, health officials said in a press conference, Monday.

“In Contra Costa County we are alarmed at the rate patients are filling our hospital beds,” Dr. Chris Farnitano, the county’s health officer, said Monday. “The number of patients in local [Contra Costa] hospitals due to COVID have doubled in just the past 10 days and increased by more than 400% in the month of July. Four out of five of these hospitalized COVID patients are not vaccinated, even though only one out of five Contra Costa adults is not vaccinated.”

“The people in the hospital with COVID, they’re really sick. They’re gasping for air, connected to a machine,” he added.

Farnitano described each of the new county orders announced Monday as “a simple step: wearing masks indoors to provide one more layer of protection for everyone.”

Although the current outbreak in California is so far nowhere near as severe last winter’s surge, case rates across the state have shot up alarmingly in recent weeks. Officials are currently reporting a 7-day statewide average of about 16.7 cases per 100 thousand people, up from a low of just 2 cases per 100,000 in early June. COVID-19 hospitalizations, too, have risen markedly, to nearly 5,000, up from a low of just about 1,200 a month ago.

People who are fully vaccinated have a substantially lower risk of becoming severely ill from the delta variant — with the unvaccinated accounting for the vast majority of hospitalizations.

But new data released Friday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that vaccinated people with so-called breakthrough infections — those who contract the virus but generally experience much milder symptoms — can carry the same amount of viral load, and be as contagious, as those who are unvaccinated.

“High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said in a statement Friday.

When asked if the spread of the delta variant could prompt Bay Area counties to delay in-person learning for students, many of whom are planning to return to school in the coming weeks, local health officials emphasized that keeping kids in classrooms remains a high priority.

“We saw the emotional, mental and social deterioration of many students” when they were attending school remotely, said Dr. Lisa Santora, Marin’s deputy public health officer. “Our goal is to get kids in school, and keep them in school.”

Officials also said they’re looking at ramping up COVID-19 testing options, as demand for testing now rebounds amid the current surge.

Monday’s announcement follows a recent recommendation from the CDC and the California Department of Public Health for everyone to resume wearing masks indoors in public settings.

Most counties in California dropped their indoor mask mandates for vaccinated people when the state reopened on June 15, although some exceptions remain for crowded spaces like public transit, schools and health care settings. But in July, several counties across the California — starting with Los Angeles County — began reinstituting those requirements as the delta variant has become the dominant COVID-19 strain in California.

Health officials on Monday also continued to implore all eligible unvaccinated people to get the shot immediately, emphasizing that even though the Bay Area has among the highest vaccination rates in the county, a significant percentage of people throughout the region remain unprotected.

The new variant, they added, has thwarted hopes of reaching “herd immunity” anytime soon — referring to when enough people become protected from a virus to significantly diminish its spread.

“Quite frankly, vaccines are keeping thousands out of Bay Area hospitals right now,” said Dr. Lisa Hernandez, health officer for the city of Berkeley. “If you are 12 and older we urge you to get vaccinated as soon as possible, it will protect you, those around you, and help keep our region safer.”

Copyright 2021 KQED