Six more California counties are urging residents to wear masks in indoor public settings amid concerning upticks in coronavirus cases and continued circulation of the highly contagious Delta variant.
The latest recommendations from Santa Barbara, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Ventura raise to 17 the number of counties now asking even fully vaccinated individuals to wear face coverings as a precaution while inside places like grocery stores, movie theaters and retail outlets.
So far, only one – Los Angeles County – has gone a step further and mandated that masks be worn in such settings. The city of Pasadena, which has its own independent health department, said it would do likewise later this week.
“All community members should take action to protect themselves and others against this potentially deadly virus,” Ventura County Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin said Monday. “While vaccines remain our best tool against COVID-19, masking in indoor and crowded outdoor settings will help us curb the spread of this latest wave of infection.”
The new round of advisories means that roughly 56% of Californians live in a county that either recommends or requires indoor masking for all individuals, including those vaccinated for COVID-19.
And, if infections continue to climb, that tally seems likely to grow in the days and weeks ahead.
Health officials have characterized the renewed calls for indoor masking as an effective but unobtrusive tactic to tamp down coronavirus transmission, which has risen rapidly following California’s June 15 reopening.
“It remains critically important that we continue to practice safety guidelines such as staying home if feeling ill, wear a mask in public indoor settings, avoid crowded events and practice good hand hygiene,” Dr. Henning Ansorg, Santa Barbara County’s health officer, said in a statement Monday.
None of the five latest counties to recommend indoor masking have recorded sky-high coronavirus case counts. But most have reported an increase in average daily infections from a month ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
Santa Barbara County, for instance, has reported an average of about 29 new coronavirus cases per day over the last week – a relatively low number compared with previous waves, but nearly six times as high as the level in mid-June.
Over the last week, California has reported an average of 4,199 new cases per day. That’s more than quadruple the number from a month ago, though still only a fraction of what the state was reporting during the height of the fall-and-winter surge.
Despite the decisions being made at the county level, both the California Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that fully vaccinated people can go without masks in most situations, given the high level of protection the shots provide.
Experts say the pandemic’s latest push is the result of a few factors. First, officials acknowledged there were likely to be some increases in transmission following June 15, the day California lifted virtually all of its coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and public spaces.
As of that day, fully vaccinated Californians were allowed to go mask-free nearly everywhere, while uninoculated residents still had to mask up in public indoor spaces.
However, since many businesses and venues didn’t screen their patrons’ vaccination status, it’s possible many unvaccinated individuals started shedding their face coverings, even in settings where they were still required. Officials note that universal indoor masking recommendations or requirements would keep this from happening, albeit at the cost of asking vaccinated people to surrender one of their recently earned freedoms.
“This just levels the playing field. It does provide protection for everyone,” L.A. County health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said last week.
Another increasingly pressing issue is the continued circulation of the Delta variant – which is believed to be twice as transmissible as the conventional coronavirus strains.
Since its presence was confirmed in California in April, Delta has rapidly become the state’s dominant strain, accounting for 48.8% of all cases analyzed in June.
While officials note that the available COVID-19 vaccines appear to remain very effective against the Delta variant, the worry is that it could spread easily among those who are unvaccinated or have yet to complete their two-dose regimen of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.
“Fully vaccinated people are well protected from infections and serious illness due to COVID-19, including the Delta variants. Vaccinating as many people as possible, as soon as possible, continues to be our best defense against severe COVID-19 infection and the harm it can do to our region,” officials in Monterey, Napa, San Benito, and Santa Cruz counties wrote in a joint statement Monday.
Despite California’s relative success on the vaccination front, millions of people remain vulnerable. Overall, 60% of Californians have received at least one dose to date, and about 52% are fully vaccinated, Times’ data show.
However, vaccine coverage varies widely from community to community. Seven counties, for instance, have partially vaccinated more than 70% of their residents. But in eight others, fewer than 40% of residents have gotten at least one dose.
The hope is that measures like ramped-up masking will help rein in coronavirus transmission before stricter measures become necessary. But the best way to prevent that, officials say, is for more people to roll up their sleeves.
“If we want to end this pandemic once and for all, if we want to turn the page, we can get it done in a matter of weeks, not months,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters Monday. “It’s as simple as this: If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated.”